Volunteering virtually connects students to London

OWeek welcomes Western students to the London community with local volunteer opportunities.

When Emma Wilkinson arrived in London three years ago, she was excited to make some new friends but she also knew she wanted to make a difference.

Volunteering with Orientation Serves (OServes) allowed her to do both. Fast forward to 2020 and Wilkinson is now charity orientation coordinator, leading the way for Western’s next generation of community-driven volunteers. And what a time to take charge – now, more than ever, people from all walks of life are in need of a friend due to the coronavirus global pandemic.

“Volunteering at my first OServes, I was able to meet so many new people who would soon become some of my very good friends,” said Wilkinson. “And I made these new friends while giving back to the city that was my new home.”

OServes, which runs Saturday, September 12, is an important introduction – for many of Western’s incoming students – to the London community. Through rain, shine, and now, a pandemic, OServes partners more than 1,000 students with 30 non-profit organizations across the region, allowing them to volunteer while learning about some of the critical issues that exist in London and society in general.

“OServes allows students to learn about their new home beyond Western’s campus,” said Wilkinson, now participating in the program for a third year. “It also gives students an introduction to the many fantastic organizations in London actively looking for volunteers.”

Like nearly everything else on campus, COVID-19 has forced a reimagining of OServes for 2020 but Wilkinson says change can be good.

“This year, we had to be very creative when developing volunteering opportunities for students to participate in during OServes,” said Wilkinson. “And I was very excited when our many amazing community partners were so willing to adapt to the current circumstances and work with our team to develop so many volunteering opportunities for the students.”

Engaging students, engaging minds

Studnets walking along side of road

OServes welcomes Western students to the London community with volunteer opportunities at dozens of not-for-profit agencies.

Traditionally, students are bussed all around London for an afternoon of volunteering with OServes. This year, all activities will be taking place either virtually or on Western’s campus with physical distancing measures in place. And while the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed the way the program is delivered this year, Heather Wakely, Western’s team lead for experiential learning, said the goals of OServes remain the same: to engage students in hands-on learning while making meaningful connections with new friends and local community partners.

“Experiential learning is a priority at Western,” said Wakely. “By participating in experiences like OServes, students are able to hone their skills, clarify their interests and identify career paths. Experiential learning also helps students increase their employability and career readiness while making a valuable difference in the lives of so many in our community during these difficult times.”

One local organization greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic is Habitat for Humanity Heartland Ontario, the London chapter of the not-for-profit.

As Canadians moved into isolation en masse this spring, Habitat for Humanity also temporary closed its doors. But when it returned to operation this summer, finding volunteers wasn’t easy. There are two builds underway in Munsee-Delaware Nation and St. Thomas and Habitat is looking for help. That’s where OServes enters the scene.

About 20 Western students will be working directly with Habitat, virtually, as part of OServes to develop a social media strategy specifically targeting the recruitment of young volunteers aged 16-25 to assist with completion at the two construction sites where new homes are being built for local families.

Kendra Forrest, volunteer manager of Habitat for Humanity Heartland Ontario, hopes the recruitment campaign will bring more youth back to Habitat as the numbers have “dropped drastically” due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A lot of our longstanding volunteers have gradually started coming back but there are still quite a few people not comfortable being in this kind of environment during a pandemic. And I totally understand it,” said Forrest. “We also work with a lot of high schools because we rely on co-op students for volunteering and they’re not all coming back either because of remote learning and other changes to their lives.”

This OServes/Habitat project will lean heavily on the inherent expertise of Western students as they use social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat to navigate through their daily lives with ease unmatched by most other age demographics.

“Social media changes so fast and hearing from 20 students at Western will be so beneficial in developing our volunteer campaign,” said Forrest. “You can do some amazing things with social media and it’s something that all organizations need to get better at. We’re excited to hear what [the students] have to say because this is their world.”

But it doesn’t mean OServes volunteers can’t kick it old school – writing letters instead of snaps.

Another group of students will be virtually learning about the special challenges seniors face during COVID-19 lockdowns, as part of a letter-writing campaign in partnership with the Mount Hope Centre for Long-Term Care.

Since the start of the COVID pandemic, and in light of necessary restrictions on visitors to long-term care homes, there is an increased need to prevent feelings of social isolation. Following a virtual discussion about the concept of isolation and the work of the Mount Hope Centre, OServes volunteers will write letters to be shared with the local seniors.

This project, like all of the others, provides Western students with an invaluable introduction to what it means to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

“We know how important it is to connect students with the London community early in their time at Western,” said Wakely. “It’s a connection that remains throughout their time as a student and beyond. Whether they’re starting here in person, or starting their program online from another city, we want them to know they’re not just joining the Western community, but also the London community.”