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Myths about volunteering in the West Island

Including an interview with Lorraine, volunteer at WICA

Lorraine has been an active volunteer at WICA for the last seven years. In this time, Lorraine has truly embodied WICA’s philosophy of “people helping people”; this can be seen in the meaningful and lasting friendships she has developed with her protégés.

  1. I don’t have the time to volunteer. Only retirees do.

At WICA, half of our volunteers are age 65 or older. Unfortunately that does not do much to fulfill the need for volunteers in the West Island in the long run. For instance, we currently have a waiting list with over 200 people in dire need of a volunteer. Lorraine is now a retiree, but she shared her thoughts about volunteering while having a career with us:

“You know you can make time to [volunteer]. I used to volunteer while I was teaching but unfortunately the lady I was matched with passed away. When I retired, I thought if I had the chance to do it again, I’d go back. I figured, I have the time, I don’t have kids, you know. So I just wanted to go back and do it.”

When Lorraine first started volunteering, she used to pick up her protégé after her work day ended at 3:30pm. It worked out well with her schedule as a teacher:  “Some people really just want someone to visit them. I would go over and she would make tea. She was very European so she would set it up with the tray and all. I used to drive her to the grocery store and to her medical appointments. It wasn’t complicated. If you’re someone who would like to volunteer but who works during the day, it can be as simple as visiting the person in need during the evening.”

  1. I cannot volunteer because I am not familiar with handicaps or mental health.

Like many other retirees, Lorraine took advantage of her free time to give back to the West Island community. It has now been seven years since she was matched with her protégé, Sandy. Before their official match, Lorraine actually provided practical support to Sandy’s boyfriend, who became blind in his late 60s. She would bring him to the bank and to the grocery store until he fell ill. The practical support Lorraine provided then transformed into social support for his wife, Sandy.

Like her late husband, Sandy is blind. That was an entirely new situation for Lorraine, who ended up learning quite a lot!

“What’s nice is that she’s taught me a lot. She’s extremely independent; I have to give her that. Oftentimes she’ll buy a jar of pickles and a jar of olives which are exactly the same size. And she’ll put elastics around [one kind of] jar in order to identify them. The same goes for soup, how do you know which can is which flavor? She shakes it! She’s so used to it. I enjoy [her] company so it’s a nice outing for me and [I] get to see through [her] eyes.”

  1. People in the West Island are well-off, so I better volunteer somewhere else.

Despite the fact that most citizens of the West Island enjoy a comfortable lifestyle, there are thousands of low-income households in this same area. According to Centraide, Pierrefonds, Dorval and Dollard-des-Ormeaux have the highest rate of low-income households in the West Island. This myth is very treacherous because the assumed lack of demand for community organizations then leads to a lack of available resources. Low-income individuals are a minority that can go unnoticed.

However, at WICA, we hear of all kinds of stories where mistreatment, abuse, fraud, isolation and abandonment are common themes. Even in the West Island, seniors can be abandoned by family members and overloaded facilities with less than adequate treatment are not unheard of.

Adults living with mental health problems struggle with very little resources to last to the end of the month. People facing language barriers are left with negligible means to navigate social and legal services.

  1. There’s not much I can get out of it.

Like so many matches at WICA, Sandy and Lorraine have become good friends over time. Volunteering is an eye opener to other people’s struggles, and to one’s own privileges:

“[Sandy shows me that] life is not that bad despite what she’s dealing with. You know, not having family, and yet very independent, very friendly and she talks to everybody. You learn a lot from them without even realizing.”

Sometimes, small unexpected moments like this one are gold:

“So, I went to visit this lady. When I knocked on the door, she was in her coat with her walker. ‘Are you coming with me? I asked, surprised. ‘Of course I’m coming with you!’ [She replied enthusiastically and a little offended].

But a few times when I arrived to pick her up, she told me “[she] was not feeling well today”, so I would understand and tell her that it was very hot out, to which she firmly declared ‘No, I’m not feeling well because I’m 100 years old!”

With this kind of positive attitude exuding from both the advocate and the protégé, volunteer work takes a new meaning. It transforms into spending time with someone we care for.

 “They have such a nice attitude, they are so appreciative, we always laugh, we have a good time, and I tell her what’s going on in my life and they remember. Both [my protégés] came from Europe, they both grew up in circumstances we can’t imagine and even they have a good sense of humour about it. I truly enjoy their company.”