PITCH FORK IN HAND, UBC OKANAGAN GRAD STUDENT RINA CHUA MUCKS OUT A HORSE STALL. It’s cold and snowing. The manure is frozen solid and keeps sliding off the pitch fork and back into the hay.
Phil Bond, senior manager of UBCO’s Student Experience Office, soon appears with a wheelbarrow. Chua and another student work to fill it with the manure-caked straw. Everyone is smiling. Even the horses looking on seem happy.
Sporting cowboy boots, faded Levis and an ear-to-ear grin, Bond is relishing the opportunity to be at Arion Therapeutic Farm, southeast of Kelowna. It’s the last day of the Days of Caring, an annual event where UBC Okanagan students spend their Reading Week volunteering with community organizations.
A partnership with the United Way, Days of Caring is now in its twelfth year, and hundreds of students have contributed thousands of hours to numerous organizations and projects across Kelowna.
“For many students, this is the first step into a whole world of experiential opportunities. Really cool things happen,” says Bond, who has seen first-hand how the Community Service Learning Program’s Days of Caring changes the lives of students.
“There’s a real sense of belonging that’s created. The students are doing something in the community and they see how their work is valued,” says Bond, as he heartily fills the wheelbarrow.
Chua agrees. She says she’s happy to be shovelling out horse stalls because volunteering gives her a sense of well-being.
“It’s fun to do because you feel like you are part of a community,” says Chua serenely.
The fulfillment Chua experiences from volunteering is not just a feeling. It’s a well-researched phenomenon. According to Holli-Anne Passmore, a UBCO psychology instructor and PhD candidate, people who volunteer have higher levels of life satisfaction and meaning in their life.
“The essence of meaning is connectedness. When you volunteer, you are connecting yourself to something that is bigger than just you,” says Passmore, who teaches courses such as Positive Psychology and Psychology of Meaning in Life.
“There is research that shows giving social support has a greater impact on increasing your health and well-being than receiving it.”
In fact, Passmore says recent studies suggest giving is actually a psychological need. “Research in just the past couple of years shows if we are not giving back, we are not going to be able to fully flourish.”
“When you volunteer, you are connecting yourself to something that is bigger than just you.”
The Days of Caring is an ideal way for UBC students to give back and flourish.
“There’s tons of opportunities,” says Bond, with a forceful enthusiasm. From baking cookies for a foodbank or painting walls at a local Boys and Girls Club, to reading with children to support literacy programs, UBC Okanagan students can choose from a long list of carefully curated opportunities with non-profit and charitable organizations across the Kelowna community.
The initial draw, says Bond, is usually something to do during Reading Week, not the benefits of selfless service.
“Students who were alone on campus end up meeting friends and connecting,” says Bond.
“There’s a really good feeling that comes with service but usually you don’t get that until you’ve gone out and done it. So, we are realistic. We let students know this is a chance to get away from the books for a while and get to know some other students.”
Reading Week is often just the introduction to volunteer opportunities. UBC Okanagan’s Community Service Learning Program runs year-around. Over the course of a school year, more than 400 students participate in scores of volunteer opportunities.
The Gift that Gives Back
It’s BC Family Day and there’s a fair-like atmosphere at the Kelowna Family YMCA. Children with painted faces weave in and out of the crowd, darting from a bouncy castle to a life-size tinker toy fortress and back. It’s a free day of activities and fun and more than 4,000 kids and parents will come through the doors.
Tharanee Nakandala is a student leader assigned to oversee the other UBCO volunteers this year. It’s her third year participating in the Days of Caring and she is quick to extol its benefits.
“It’s helped me grow. Because I was a group leader, I learned how to divide tasks equally and work with a team. I learned a lot about myself and how one would behave in an environment like this,” says Nakandala reflectively.
An international student from Sri Lanka, Nakandala first got involved in the Days of Caring because all her friends were going home for Reading Week and she was looking for things to do. Now, she says she volunteers every chance she gets.
“Where I come from, volunteering isn’t as big as it is here. I’ve learned so much. Just the act of helping someone and being kind really means a lot.”
The help from volunteers also means a lot to Tina Bennett, YMCA Child and Youth Manager.
“It’s definitely a crazy day for us here and it’s so helpful to have them come in,” says Bennett, noting the YMCA, with almost 16,000 members, relies on volunteers to operate.
Bennett says the UBCO students that volunteer during the Days of Caring often end up doing practicums with the YMCA.
“It’s a chance to become knowledgeable of everything we have to offer here. Once someone volunteers they have the opportunity for employment.”
Bennett says Family Day at the YMCA is all about putting away the technology and getting back to playing with kids.
Nakandala, who helped paint faces much of the day, says she can’t believe how quickly their time went. “It was so relaxing to get away from all the school stress.”
Capturing Moments of Kindness
Seeds of Hope
In the hallway of the Kelowna Gospel Mission — one of the city’s largest homeless shelters — Lori Field, program coordinator for the Community Service Learning program, looks on as UBCO students mop floors.
“I like to think that we are planting seeds,” says Field. “The students get to know the non-profit community, they see the dynamics within the organization and get to know how little money non-profits have to run. You never know what they are going to learn when they are here. They may come back to volunteer.”
It’s clear the students mopping the floors know their work matters. They are conscientious and move with a sense of purpose.
The Kelowna Gospel Mission has 170 regular weekly volunteers and over the course of a year volunteers donate 44,000 hours of time to keep things running.
“Without volunteers, we wouldn’t (be able to) run this shelter,” says Sonja Menyes, manager of volunteers and development officer. “You may be coming to do good for your community but in return you receive. You get an appreciation and sense that you are enhancing your community.”
On days like today, when the Kelowna Gospel Mission has more volunteers, shelter staff are able to tackle jobs that otherwise don’t get done, says Menyes.
Second year nursing student Kal Taye is a student leader this year at the Mission.
“I had some students reach out to me about being a little nervous because it is a homeless shelter,” says Taye. “But once we got here, that all changed. Everyone is so grateful and it’s really well maintained.”
It’s Taye’s second time participating in the Days of Caring. She says she was inspired to come back as a student leader because her experience with the Okanagan Boys and Girls Club last year was so positive.
“It made a big impact. No one forced us to be there, everyone chose to be there. My student leader was amazing. The kids weren’t there but the staff asked us to clean toys. It does seem like a tedious task but it was something they needed done and they were so thankful afterwards.”
Time for Reflection
A key component to the Days of Caring experience is a reflection session where students take time to process and discuss their experience. Often what happens, says Bond, is students who initially signed up to beat the boredom of an empty dorm, discover a higher meaning.
“Everyone is always so grateful. That’s what makes me feel like coming back to help again and again. Seeing how much they appreciate our help,” says Taye.
Gratitude is a word that comes up repeatedly in conversation with everyone involved in the Days of Caring. This is proof that the initiative has an extraordinary cause and effect. When gratitude and good feelings are combined, they result in a desire to give even more.
As Passmore explains: “We are hard-wired to need social contact. Volunteering is one of the few activities where the benefits just keep increasing over time.”
—Written by Craig Carpenter