Bringing volunteerism to the community

Paul Mayne // Western NewsFifth-year Social Science student Judy Basmaji grabbed a paint brush during Western’s Alternative Spring Break and gave a fresh look to one of the bathrooms at the Youth Opportunities Unlimited building in downtown London.

They serve with willing hands and see the world through new eyes.

Since Western’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program began in 2003, its tagline has been Be the change. Participants have taken it to heart, through the experiences they have had, the people they have met and the self-exploration they have done.

This group shatters any stereotype of millennial self-absorption as they volunteer with purpose, giving generously of their time and talents to be the change and do good in the world.

The program gives students a chance during Western’s Reading Weeks in February or in October, or after final exams at the beginning of May, to connect with communities in 15 different locations – from the City of London in Western’s backyard, to regions across the globe.

Western ASB was one of the first of its kind in Canada. It began when five student leaders and two staff from the Division of Housing and Ancillary Services travelled to Pittsburgh, Penn., during Reading Week to volunteer with several community agencies. During this year’s February Reading Week, almost 240 students, faculty and staff traveled and served, adding their transformative experiences to the 1,500-plus stories of past participants.

Western students have helped build homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; offered health services in Costa Rica and Nicaragua; learned about food security in communities with diverse needs and populations in North America; developed learning activities for children across Latin America and the Caribbean; and helped build an educational/community space in one of the most isolated communities in Trinidad.

Daily reflection is a key part of Western’s participants’ experience. By changing themselves and their perceptions, students begin to understand how small steps can lead to bigger changes.

“Having been on the ASB experience in London for three years in a row, I have witnessed the camaraderie that is built through a shared purpose,” said Gurleen Thethi, who is set to graduate with an Economics degree this year. “The experience pushes us out of our comfortable ‘Western bubble’ in the best way possible. Over the course of a week, strangers from different backgrounds and academic programs become more than teammates, they become friends.”

Ahmed Shaalan, an international, first-year medical student, said without the experience of a week volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club and Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU) in downtown London, “our group of 12 would likely never have crossed paths on campus, let alone talked about our different life experiences and some of our ideas about power, privilege and how people end up living on the street.”

Most of the group’s week was spent working with staff and clients of the YOU Made it Café, a practical classroom that offers a step towards employment for youth whose barriers include homelessness, unemployment or a lack of education. Supervised by an executive chef, the kitchen and café offers at-risk youth training and employment experience in preparing and serving food.

Fellow international student Ming Xu said ASB changed her perception of London as a predominately affluent city. “I’m a Psychology student, so I’m constantly thinking about what motivates behaviour and how we interact with others every day,” said Xu.  

I found the reflection exercises helped us see the world through other’s eyes, to experience the world in ways in we haven’t be able to,” she said. “All week, we were shifting the conversation from thinking why people can’t simply pull themselves out of poverty to asking what are the social and structural barriers to a better quality of life?”

Barriers are something King’s University College student Lizz Black perhaps knows best of all of the group. While she was a first-time ASB volunteer, she has first-hand experience with YOU’s services.

Having “couched-surfed and lived rough for years” as a teenager, she said she could not have overcome the odds without the help of YOU. “The Youth Action Centre was a safe place for me, especially when I didn’t know where I was going to sleep that night. The support offered by staff and peers helped me move toward my goal to pursue post-secondary education.”

Enrolled in the School of Social Work at King’s, Black neatly summed up the group’s ASB experience. “By connecting with at-risk, transient and street youth, we’ve learned how to appreciate the good in our own lives, challenge our prejudices, see the person, and not the addiction or other problems they are struggling with.”