Volunteer Transformations: A Retrospective

When we think about volunteers, we think about people who are helping others. If you mentor a child, you are changing that child’s life. When you visit a home-bound senior, you are changing that seniors’ life.

Volunteering doesn’t only change the person you help. It changes you just as profoundly. I’m Stacy Ashton, and I run Community Volunteer Connections, the local volunteer centre for New Westminster and Tri-Cities.  In my work I get to see the impact of volunteering, but the story I want to tell today is how volunteering has consistently transformed my life, professionally and personally.

Choosing My Career

Many volunteers I meet trace their start in volunteering to childhood. Not me. When I decided I should really figure out what to do with my life, I figured volunteering was a low cost, low risk way to experiment. Maybe counselling would be a good fit, but I really didn’t want to do a graduate degree and find out after the fact that working with people in pain is a drag.

The Vancouver Crisis Lines seemed like a good place to find out. When you volunteer on a Crisis Line, you commit to a year of weekly shifts, including 8 overnights. In return, you get deep training in crisis and suicide assessment, listening skills, and how to provide support without giving advice. You also end up talking to people in the most difficult moments in their lives, and play a huge role in helping them stabilize and figure out what to do next.

Volunteering always surprises you. What surprised me was how much I learned about counselling, critical things that I didn’t learn when I did complete my Masters in Counselling. With my crisis line skills, I landed my first job as a Suicide Intervention Counsellor.

Falling in Love

Six years later I was between jobs, I had some free time, and I decided to get involved in the provincial election. I wandered into Peter Julian’s campaign office, stated my intention to volunteer, and was introduced to Jaimie McEvoy, the campaign volunteer coordinator.

He was a bit scruffy in his pre-City Councillor days, and I asked about his beard. He was growing it out during the campaign, like you might grow a beard when the Canucks are in the play-offs. He’d shave it when Peter won. I told him I thought beards were scratchy to kiss (what?), he told me his beard was very soft, and then I watched my hand drift up and touch the face of this complete stranger.

Then I was the best volunteer ever, showed up every day, and brought him gifts to keep him sane. The day after election (spoiler alert: we won!) I suggested we should date. Ten years later, we’re married and still volunteer during the elections.

Crisis and Recovery

A few years later I had my first bout of depression serious enough to require medication. I didn’t want to eat. I couldn’t sleep for more than a few hours at a time, but I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t think I was of use to anyone on the planet, and really, with so many people in the world, taking up so much space, wouldn’t my best contribution be to not exist? It didn’t matter that I had counselled people with the exact same thoughts; depression sits in the middle of your head and lies to you loudly and persistently until there is no room in your head for anything else.

For me, depression came in waves, with a few days where it got slightly less intense. Once I finally understood a lull meant the depression wasn’t really gone, and would be back, I used the lull to book appointments with doctors and therapists, and I followed through on my desire to adopt a kitten and her mother. My girls, Shylo and Peaches, bonded me to the Royal City Humane Society, so I had to volunteer to pay them back.

Turns out, volunteering at a cat shelter was an excellent way to recover from depression. Unlike humans, cats didn’t want any more from me than I could give, and they really didn’t care if I was an emotional wreck. For two hours a week, all I had to do was put out some food, sweep the floors, change the litter, do a bit of laundry, and sit on a couch to see which kitties would come over for attention.

As the weeks went by I could see cats go from terrified and hissing to confident and purring; and I could see I was a part of that, just by being kind and loving to them. And that helped remind me to be kind and loving to myself.

Re-Entering the World

Medication is awesome. Within a week my sleep had stabilized, my desire to eat returned, and I started looking around for my next contribution. That’s when I saw a job posting for Community Volunteer Connections. Now I get to help others transform their lives through volunteering.

When I look back, volunteering has shaped every key transformation in my life so far, in profound and unpredictable ways. Why volunteer? I can’t tell you what it will do for you. I just know it will surprise you.