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The Power of Volunteers

 As we work among people experiencing poverty and homelessness, we have discovered an unusually powerful component that has become one of the foundations of our outreach – volunteers.

It never ceases to amaze me how people will leave the warmth and comfort of their homes and families and brave all elements to ensure that the relationships they have established with their friends on the streets or at one of our drop in programs, are maintained and strengthened.  Truly amazing.

Our street friends notice!  They are students of human behavior.  They watch people all day, and can quickly tell the difference between an imitation and the real thing.  Volunteers are in this latter category.  If there were such a thing, our street friends would each qualify for an honorary Ph.D. degree in the study of human behavior.  They know when someone is ‘out to help’ for selfish, personal reasons or because they genuinely care.  This is the power of a volunteer.

We have our Urban Intervention Training program three times a year, and a volunteer social typically occurs at the conclusion of these training sessions.  It gives the new volunteers an opportunity to meet with people who are experienced in the area, and it also provides increased opportunities to meet new people with similar interests.

Tonight was great.  Our BBQ social was a great success.  People were talking and laughing while meeting new friends and hearing our stories.  The food was great, but the friendships – ah- that’s the thing.

We model genuine transparent relationships with each other and then take it to the streets.  Seasoned volunteers, new graduates, staff and work skills participants all pulling together to move this mountain called ‘homelessness’, and making a difference – one person at a time.

Ever wanted to be a part of a group that together was doing something so much bigger than any of us could do alone?  Come and join our team of volunteers.  You can make a difference!

Downtown Ottawa

“Urban Intervention Training” is the name of our volunteer training program which we host three times a year.  It’s a full Saturday, followed by a weeknight session for each of four weeks.  The last evening consists of a walk in downtown Ottawa, where experienced staff/outreach workers take our new volunteers and show them the sights of the city.  It’s not an interactive evening with our street friends, but rather an education for volunteers to help them understand a little of the culture of our city.

Parts of our walk are not too pretty.  Groups of people milling about outside shelters, the drug deals going down, the pushers and the takers, many ‘faceless’ homeless that someday might be new friends to our volunteers.  It’s about light penetrating darkness, caring for humanity, justice and advocacy and a host of other issues swirling all around and calling out for attention.

Last night I lead a group of new volunteers in a walk downtown.

Here’s a look at the streets of the Nation’s Capital from the perspective of some people who have already spent considerable time in a fast track to learn about poverty and homelessness.  Here’s how they responded:

Q: What were your observations?

  • It was really enlightening.  As a person with a disability, I wouldn’t have a chance on the streets.
  • It was a nice night – I can’t imagine what it would be like if it were raining or snowing.
  • A lot of bridges have fences around them.  They are inaccessible.

Q:  How would you survive?

  • If I had to do it on an on-going basis it would be physically and mentally draining.
  • I saw the fences, the restrictions, and the attitudes reflected by that message.  I was torn between thinking, ‘It’s too bad to have fences,’ and ‘Why are they there in the first place?’
  • I felt very unwelcome and scared.  I spent the whole time trying to figure out where am I going to sleep?  Where will I be safe?  Where could I find peace and quiet? I was caught between those thoughts – especially because I am a woman.
  • I don’t know.  It was very unwelcoming: Don’t stop here. Don’t come here.  Bars and fences everywhere saying, not you, not here.

It is a dark and unwelcoming world, but one that needs to first be seen and then be addressed.   The final question, “How can we help?” was succinctly answered by one of our new volunteers:  “It’s not about fixing anything. It’s about caring.  It’s about coming alongside, it’s just to ‘be’.”

In many respects we are very limited in what we can do.  On the other hand, we can make a significant difference in people’s lives through our caring, our touch and our ‘walking alongside’.  It’s all about people and all about relationships, dignity and respect, and caring enough to go beyond our own comfort zone.

Ready?  Let’s go?

Random Act of Kindness Multiplies Itself BIG time!

The Backgrounder:  OIM sponsors the 8:00 am and 5:00 pm news on a local radio station, CHRI 99.1 fm.  For one of our 60 second spots, I interviewed a young lady (we’ll call her Rachel) from our Passion for Youth art program.  In this interview, she commented on how much she enjoyed participating in the program, so much so that she says that she dosen’t even think of drugs while she is  involved in the program.  This is quite remarkable, really!

The Story:  So Rachel came to our office to get some stuff and stays a moment for a visit.  She told me this story:

Part 1:  She was panhandling on the street when a kind lady offered to buy her some supper.  She agreed and the two of them had an enjoyable time together.  She felt special because a.) she was noticed, b.) the time over a meal brought a sense of dignity, and c.) somebody actually cared.

Part 2: Two days later, this same lady comes by and Rachel is at the same spot, panhandling.  She stops and chats, one of the first questions she asked was: “Was that you that I heard on the radio?  I recognize your voice.  That was great!”

Rachel’s face beamed with joy as she answered in the affirmative. Imagine, someone recognized her!!

This is huge!  We might get a kick of being on the radio, but for Rachel, this is so much bigger.  In her part in this little story, she was recognized not just a panhandler, or even as a person who might be ‘down and out’ for the time being.  She was someone who was recognized for making a larger, positive contribution to a good cause!  Mabye even informing and influencing the way that radio listeners think about people caught in the web of poverty and homelessness.

She was radiant as she recounted this story.

It might be hard to imagine just how much of an impact this would be for someone who calls the streets their home.  Think of it for a moment:  24/7 you are struggling to survive, just trying to make it to the next day; the past continually comes before your mind: harsh words (“You are such a loser! You’ll never amount to anything!  You are worthless trash!); every imaginable form of abuse (from abusive parents and relatives, residential school system, etc); multiple foster homes; struggling to survive, and well… you fill in the gaps.

THEN someone comes up to you in the midst of your despair and darkened world and brings a burning magnesium light of hope and glory, and says, “Hey, was that you I heard on the radio?  I recognized your voice.  That was great!”

You never can know the full impact of such positive words and affirmation.  It just might be enough to change someone’s life!

Haiti – All about perspective

Andre grimmaces as he describes his personal agony about Haiti.  His pain is evident in his countenance.  Twice in our conversation, he has to stop talking and choke back the emotion.

“We have so much here. We are so rich. We have so much.”

Haiti is an unfathomable tragedy. It’s almost surreal, and we are overwhelmed in our thinking by the devastation.  The magnitude of destruction and carnage is almost an incomprehensible reality.  I can’t imagine what people are experiencing or what they are going through.  Everything has been shaken, and people are filled with fear that there may be more to come. 

Andre’s words and compassion speak to me.  His concern is deepened by his own personal story.  He suffers from severe clinical depression, and there have been times when he will go for days without sleeping or eating.  Sometimes he is quite beside himself with anxiety and worry.  His family has ostricized him, even refusing to take him with them in their car to bury his mother.  He has overcome a cocaine habit, but still struggles to take his medication and maintain his own health. He is all alone.

He sits across the table from me, and I marvel at how he is moved with empathy for the Haitians. How someone so impoverished and traumatized in his own personal life, can be so moved with such a deep compassion for others, is an enigma for me.  I am dwarfed in comparison to my friend.  His selflessness, concern and thoughtfulness for others is miles above and beyond my own.

We walk past people like my friend Andre on the streets all the time and we often look down on them.  Why don’t they just get up and get a job?  Why can’t they be responsible for their lives?  Sometimes we might throw some loose change in a ball cap, but it’s more to alleviate our guilt and make ourselves feel better than to make any lasting change in their lives.  We categorize and generalize.   We become smug in our complacency, our materialism and self-absorbtion.  We miss it, and we miss out.

There are people that do care.  At OIM we currently have 91 active volunteers on the roster, and our Urban Intervention Training course (beginning January 30) is filling up fast.

One hundred percent of the time new volunteers come to us to ‘help the poor’ and ‘make transformational changes’ in their lives.

Another one hundred percent of the time: Three weeks after these same volunteers are involved in serving our street friends, they realize that it’s not about their ‘giving’ at all – instead it’s all about how they have become the recipients of blessing and  growth themselves.  One hundred percent of the time.