On Volunteering, the Writers’ Exchange and Community

By Mike Johnston, Writers' Exchange volunteer

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Mike and the Writers' Exchange staff team

Many times in my life I have inadvertently let myself down by entertaining the fantasy of an idea at the expense of the reality of who I am and what I am like as a human. Others, too, I have let down by way of my too-late discovery that what I thought would be a great idea, something I could commit to long term, was not for me. Projects, jobs, relationships, friendships. All have suffered from me not knowing what I wanted. 

I thought, for example, I wanted to be a journalist in Beijing and pursue education there. This was an ideal I zealously attempted to realise for the better part of a year, in the face of waning health, and dwindling interests and social activity outside of work and study. Predictably, enthusiasm for this far-fetched life of mine ended. I wanted something else—and I wanted to trust that I really wanted it.

Trite as they sound, words that guided the recovery and new directions of my life as I transitioned from Beijing to Vancouver—my home base before I had departed on that wayward misadventure—were “love,” “friendship,” and “community.”

“Community” was keenly pertinent. I have led a fortunate life involving a lot of moving around; quickly establishing oneself in unfamiliar territory is de rigeur for my family. Consequently, community, beyond a fast and loose association, has always been an abstract concept. Understand, then, in light of the many failures of my fancies, my hesitant desire to prioritise that which I felt I’d never deeply experienced for myself: community.

From the spring of 2015, when I knew with certainty I would renege on my future in China, to January of 2016, when I finally began living again in Vancouver, notions of what meaning I would create for myself and with others changed wildly and incessantly. I had no point of reference. There were times I thought “having a community” might be akin to doing a part-time job with cool coworkers, or that community was defined by those people exclusively with whom one might record an album. The only thought that stuck was that community meant caring for people in some way.

When I moved back, I got the chance to try out my ideas. Owing to an interest in psychology and the then-thought that I might enjoy being a professional counsellor for seniors (and owing as well to my partner’s observations that in fashion and leisure preferences, I resemble a man in his mid 70s rather than mid 20s), a tentative first step in concretising my notions of, and commitment to, community was volunteering in a seniors’ live-in care home. It scratched an itch for a few short months, and I had a pleasant experience, if vague, of being “out there in the community.” Yet, I felt something missing. I knew partly that this missing factor was a sense of engagement in light of my very few responsibilities at the care home. In reflection, I take from this that my personal sense of community did not yet include the concept of impact—my concept of community as an association of folks who like each other lacked a core element: for what purpose does a community exist? It is that element, which varies according to the character of any community in question, that makes a community durable, and distinguishes it from concepts like “neighbourhood” or “social network.”

At the time, I didn’t have such clear ideas; I didn’t know quite what I was looking for; nevertheless, I trusted my instinct to strive for more. As it happened, while searching for meaning in life, I was also seeking cool experiences to complement my intended application to grad school. In what I now recall as a happenstance flourished with volcanic fireworks, the singing of angels, gold-spun god rays illuminating the screen of my computer, and a singular experience of transcendence, I discovered that Writers’ Exchange was a thing. Also, that I’d missed the deadline for volunteer applications by a week. I applied anyway; I really liked the look of what I saw. A very responsive, accommodating, and enthusiastic Volunteer Manager, Sarah-Jane, guided me through the application and orientation, and within a few weeks, I was on my way to my first in-school programme. 

I was indeed nervous. When was the last time I’d been inside a school? Hallways, lockers, the Office—what had seemed for giants through the distant fog of my childhood eyes now looked miniature, illusively smaller than the actual size. My nerves compelled me to humour as I stood in a classroom where so many eyes watched and I felt a stranger. Dad-jokes to the rescue. It wasn’t so much that iconic “first”—first laugh, smile, or in my case, groan—that opened me to the wonder of Writers’ Exchange, but the continuity, over time. As the kids and I became more familiar, recognition, friendship, collaboration, and a bounty of mortifyingly bad puns germinated over time, one week to the next. This changed my understanding of what role WE volunteers play in the kids’ lives, and more generally what impact people can have in each other’s lives.

I had approached our programmes thinking mechanically that the bulk of my actions were in some way supposed to output literacy. More than once, the program team, Jen and Haley, helpfully reminded me that good spelling and grammar were not to be my main concern. This definitely confused me in the beginning: What’s more important to literacy, after all, than knowing properly how to read and write? I wondered about that throughout days when emotions ran high, or the kids hadn’t slept, or were fighting with friends—I tried to be patient and to listen. Sometimes, no matter what I did, I could not connect with them and asked a programmer or teacher for help. And as I experienced the full human display of ups and downs, and saw kids trying in spite of the hurdles that faced them, my preconception of what it meant to support literacy drastically changed.

The change hit home while working with one of the first kids I’d connected with as a volunteer on her final piece of writing for the year. We faced a familiar situation for many at WE: she had brilliant ideas, which seemingly nothing could entice her to write down (there are many reasons that kids experience this dichotomy, I learned, and it does no favours to make assumptions). So for this final writing, she was the storyteller and I the humble scribe, and a great and terrifying tale she told. We laughed, we problem-solved, struggled, agreed, consulted Jen, and finally came to a conclusion that, in slightly different ways and in many ways the same, made us proud. What had not occurred to me before was that being a friend, or being a role model, or just being present, were valuable ways of supporting literacy.

Literacy is a skill, and skills are meaningless in absence of the people who do them, and people, especially kids, are dynamic and complex and affected by their environments and have so many things to learn, as well as ways of learning. At Writers’ Exchange I was a friend, hopefully a good role model, and present in the lives of so many different kids. I got to be a part of Writers’ Exchange’s terrifically supportive space, to be a part of a safe environment in which kids could explore, invent(, vent!), or just hang out. I got to meet other volunteers, all of whom brought (and keep bringing) grace, empathy, and patience to their relationships with the kids. I was supported by the tireless staff—Sarah-Jane, Sarah, Jen, Haley, Taylor, and Julie. All these people helped me realise that literacy, and in fact many a meaningful, collaborative project, takes place in an ecosystem of interconnected people, all with strengths and hurdles, good days and bad.

When I realised what Writers’ Exchange was to me, I fell madly in love with it — I signed up for every possible programme I could, and even that wasn’t enough; I needed to tell the world about this amazing group, and did so through WE outreach campaigns, and waxing euphoric to friends and family. My deep well of love for Writers’ Exchange came from yet another understanding: the above-mentioned ecosystem, all these folks and their personalities and situations and the connections between them spirited by creative energy, social support, and the joy of children—wasn’t that what you would call a community?

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