Virtual volunteering during the pandemic
Giving back to the community, a professional boost and their own mental wellbeing are all reasons why newcomers enjoy and recommend volunteering during COVID-19.
That Canadians are a kind and generous lot is a recorded and acknowledged fact. According to Statistics Canada, more than 40 per cent of Canadians 15 and older, volunteered for charities, non-profits and other organizations in 2018. But when, in early 2020, the world shut down because of COVID-19, it significantly restricted in-person volunteering opportunities especially at high-risk places such as long-term care homes and community centers, and religious venues – popular choices to engage in volunteering activities. Work and life moved online and so did volunteering. Acts of kindness and community-led initiatives to assist the most vulnerable went into overdrive and for some it took them on a journey that they hadn’t quite planned.
Iranian-born, Mina Mirzaei first volunteered with BrainTech Robotics, a non-profit that enables BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) girls and women to explore and work in STEM, in 2018. Connected through Volunteer MBC, this engagement opened doors for Mirzaei, though in a different area of work than she was looking for. She found a job with a company that was building a mentorship application and was focused on women in leadership in the tech sector. Then COVID hit and she found herself out of a job. That’s when she harnessed her expertise and energy into volunteering, again, for BrainTech.
“Coincidentally, before COVID, a team of volunteers at BrainTech was working on an online learning platform for kids interested in STEM. So, we simply put in all our energies, between April and June 2020, where I volunteered 40-hour weeks to help them start up online programming to launch this platform. Of course, I was able to devote these hours because my husband was working full time. At the end, it was such a joy and I learnt so much,” she says.
The skills she learnt while on the project – from project management to coordinating a large, remote, Canada-wide team – are helping her in her current job helping companies transform their businesses and operations to a more digital platform in a socially distanced world.
Not only did she build her web technology and programming skills, but her experience also taught her the importance of building her brand and identity. “My volunteering experience changed my perspective on what’s really important and what really brings you happiness – making a difference in people’s lives. It teaches you a lot about yourself”, she says.
For Sophia Marsheva, it was learning empathy. The Russian-born University of Toronto student, like her peers, found herself living in residence, attending online classes and battling isolation brought on by the lockdown. She came across flyers for Kids Help Phone – a charitable organization providing aound the clock free and confidential professional online and telephone counselling to youth. Marsheva joined their volunteer-led, text-based support program as a crisis responder. Her job was to build a rapport with youth who were stressed and to talk them through the process of arriving at healthy solutions to their problems. “Listening to people my age talking about the unbelievable amount of stress they were going through, with their academics, with feeling depressed or isolated during COVID deepened my empathy. In being able to support them, I found support as well,” she says. Marsheva who volunteers about 4-6 hours a week, aspires to specialise in disability law. “I feel that this experience has helped immensely with acquiring skills like active listening, brainstorming solutions and engaging in the human experience, especially in times of a crisis,” she says.
Like Mirzaei and Marsheva, newcomers in Canada often find that volunteering may give them the foot in the door they need professionally to address that perplexing clause – “Canadian experience”. In a study conducted by Statistics Canada, participants mentioned that volunteering had significantly increased their interpersonal and communication skills along with knowledge about subject matters that they were previously unaware of like public health or women’s’ issues.
“Volunteering here is counted as professional experience and so you need to know how to present it in a resume or at an interview. Fundraising can translate into project management skills, recruitment can be sales, working as part of a team can translate into team management skills. So, when interviewing for a position, the attitude should be that you are adding value with the expertise that you already have and the experience that volunteering has given you. So play it up, not down,” says Daisy Wright, career coach and author of No Canadian Experience, Eh? A Career Success Guide for New Immigrants and Tell Stories, Get Hired, An Innovative Strategies to Land Your Next Job and Advance Your Career.
For Vancouver resident, Faheem Shah, his volunteering experience with DiverseCity, a registered charity that provides settlement services to newcomers was a source of great satisfaction. A senior, who had his own long-drawn struggles as a new immigrant in 2004, Shah is doing his part in pandemic times. He’s been part of food distribution programs and driving other seniors to and from appointments among other volunteering roles “Volunteering during COVID gave me a chance to explore the needs of the vulnerable members of our community – particularly seniors from different backgrounds, cultures and languages. I am also hoping to secure a permanent position and this experience will definitely help in that,” he says.
Opportunities during lockdown
Virtual volunteering has opened up a lot of opportunities for those who want to give their time and organizations across Canada are facilitating training sessions for aspiring volunteers. But getting your intent right is crucial before applying for such positions because finding a volunteer position is an intensive process.
“Before starting, it is important to understand why you want to volunteer – whether to find a job, looking to make friends or build community/network or to gain experience,” says Roshini Mathews, Volunteer Advisor with Volunteer Toronto. The next step is to focus on identifying transferable skills to find opportunities that are best suited to an individual. Volunteer Toronto has an active portal where newcomers can look for such opportunities. Focus on identifying transferable skills to find opportunities that are most suited to them.
“In cases where newcomers have a language barrier, we direct them to organizations and roles that will help them learn and improve their communication skills like food banks, where they can interact with a wide variety of people, develop confidence and build a sense of community,” says Mathews.
Organisations offering virtual and in-person volunteering opportunities during COVID
There are a number of non-profits and private organizations that you can lend your time and efforts to. Depending on what you are looking for in your experience and what is your area of interest, here’s a snapshot of some of the organizations that can help you get started.
Volunteer & Co-op (Peel region): ncpeeel.ca/volunteer.html
Volunteer Canada: volunteer.ca
Volunteer Toronto: volunteertoronto.ca
Volunteer MBC (Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon): volunteermbc.org
Volunteer Match: volunteermatch.org
Spark Ontario: sparkontario.ca
GoVolunteer (Connecting volunteers with non-profits in B.C): govolunteer.ca
Canadian Mental Health Association: cmha.ca