What's In It For Me?
Being a student in Toronto, like many other students, I have to complete 40 volunteer hours by the end of grade 12 in order to graduate. I am spending those hours at Haven Toronto, a drop-in centre for elder men who are homeless. I didn’t expect to learn much from volunteering and, like many of my peers, I was somewhat dreading the experience and the work ahead. I even remember thinking early on, "What's in it for me?" In hindsight, it was a selfish question.
After just four days at Haven Toronto,
I realized that there is a lot in it for me.
Through volunteering, I have learned about society. My society. I learned the feeling of self-satisfaction from contributing to my society. I learned Haven Toronto has something that is overlooked by many other places: community. When people think about helping those in need, they think about food, shelter, everyday supplies - items along those lines. Mental health is often overlooked but is very important. Clients of Haven Toronto are part of a community. That inclusiveness does wonders for their mental health. When I started volunteering, I worked in the kitchen, the same kitchen that in 2017 served more than 52,000 meals. I also worked in a clothing room that distributed over 11,000 articles of clothing last year. While in the kitchen and in the clothing room, I saw clients socializing and being friendly with each other. In this community, they look out for each other.
Not only were clients nice to each other, they were welcoming to volunteers. I was surprised by how many times I was asked how my day was going or how I was enjoying the experience. This being my first time volunteering, I made a few mistakes yet everyone was patient; I was made to feel both welcome and comfortable. A shelter is a place where someone goes to stay the night, leaving them outside for the day. Haven Toronto takes a different approach, giving people a place to stay during the day, with ample things to do. There is a library with over 1000 books. There is a bank of computers for people to use to stay connected with others and for research and recreation. There is a pool table, bubble hockey, musical instruments, an art and writing room and televisions throughout. It is not uncommon for people to feel cut-off and isolated when they do not have somewhere to socialize. The environment at Haven Toronto stops isolation from happening. Volunteering at Haven Toronto has meant working alongside clients who are helping out as well. This confused me at first. I expected two sides to the situation: the volunteers and the clients, with no intersection between the two groups. I have since learned that people, clients included, volunteer for different reasons. Some do it to keep themselves busy. Some to give back and to be part of the community. And some do it to help their friends out. It reinforces my earlier thoughts on isolation and mental health.
When my volunteering began, I did not know what I wanted from the experience and I did not know what I would get out of it. Then came the realization that not only was my helping out making a difference, so was how I was treating the clients. Showing them respect and treating people who are homeless like human beings goes a long way. Sometimes what we deserve, like respect, is not what we get in life. Haven Toronto's client's know that better than anyone. I think that’s why they are so grateful. Once I formed connections with clients and realized that I was making a difference, I knew that’s all I wanted out of this experience. It was no longer about the 40 hours.