The Unexpected Outcomes of Volunteering

Robyn Craigie is a Project Assistant at Ashton College. He writes research reports and blogs, as well as providing admin support. In his spare time he enjoys socializing, playing and watching sports (soccer especially), reading, watching movies, and writing. In September, Robyn will pursue his Master of Urban Studies (M.URB) degree at Simon Fraser University.

When it came time to complete my mandatory 30 hours of community service in order to graduate high school, I wanted to do the same thing that many of my friends were doing at the time’getting someone with the authority to fill out a form saying they did the 30 hours without actually having done anything. This is embarrassing to write now, but in the context of a high school senior’s mind, it meant more time to do what teenagers do.

My mom wasn’t having any of that. She was working at the Portland Hotel Society at the time, which houses some of the Downtown Eastside’s most at-risk residents. She knew there were volunteer opportunities there that would actually make my 30 hours impactful. So, much to my dismay, I actually had to do some volunteering. Woe was me.

I went to the Portland Hotel for my first day of volunteering on a Saturday afternoon. My assignment was to write a male resident’s autobiography. This man was in his late 70s. He suffered from severe alcoholism. As I sat down in his room with my tape recorder, the first thing I noticed was that professional wrestling posters adorned his walls. We spoke about wrestling for a bit, and though I had long-since stopped watching wrestling, the conversation was a good point of entry. From there I started asking him questions about his life: where did he grow up? What was his childhood like? Did he have any family? How did he come to live in the Portland Hotel?

The answers to these questions were scattered. Sometimes his memories transported both of us back to the moment he was talking about; sometimes they felt like he was grasping at shadows. His childhood memories of growing up in small town Atlantic Canada where everyone knew everyone and fishing was the main industry were vivid. But when asked how he got to the downtown eastside or if he had any remaining family, his memory was hazy. He could tell me a bit, especially about his two children. But he didn’t know where his children were. He didn’t know when he last saw them. He could scarcely remember their personal qualities at all. Hearing him speak about his life was both inspiring and heartbreaking.

After interviewing the man several times, I took my notes home and I began to write his autobiography. I wrote some of it, until the point that I had completed my thirty hours. From there, graduation festivities began and newfound freedoms were realized. Finishing his autobiography never happened. Some months later, my mom told me that he had died. I couldn’t help but feel I had let him down. This is the part where I was going to write that I learned that if you’re going to try to make a difference in the world, you should do it now, don’t wait for the perfect time. That might be true, but I think I learned something more valuable. I didn’t actually let this man down. It wasn’t the autobiography that made him happy to see me, it was that I would come and listen to him speak about his life. I learned that volunteering can be as simple as just listening to someone the world doesn’t listen to very often.

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