Putting the civil in society

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McGill Reporter
April 5, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 14
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > April 5, 2001 > Putting the civil in society

Putting the civil in society

Once a week, at about 4 pm, a trio of friends gathers for a special mission. After slipping on clunky red packsacks, Stephanie Gabor, Jillian Crangle and Johanna Prehogan head out for a 90-minute walk to deliver hot meals, door-to-door, to a group of elderly Montrealers living around McGill's main campus.

Photo Education student Sarah Damelin and arts student Julie Tsatsaronis head out to deliver meals to the elderly.
PHOTO: Owen Egan

Since last fall, through sunshine and snow, the trio have volunteered as a foot patrol for a local meals-on-wheels program called Santropol Roulant. The three are among 22 McGill students who volunteer at Santropol to bring food to golden agers who, for varying reasons, can't get it for themselves.

But ask the deliverywomen to reveal their reasons for taking on the job and they turn bashful. "Helping out just seemed like a nice thing to do," says Prehogan.

"It doesn't take up that much time in our lives," explains Crangle, "compared to all the time we all usually take for ourselves."

Whatever their motives, count these do-gooders amid the hundreds of McGill students who volunteer time and skills to dozens of organizations both on and off campus. Include them, too, among the estimated 7.5 million Canadian volunteers that are being saluted throughout 2001 as part of the International Year of the Volunteer.

Dean of Students Rosalie Jukier finds it heartening to know McGill students are actively giving their time to worthy causes. After all, there's more to university life than classes, labs and hanging out on campus. "Volunteering really helps round out a student's university experience," she says.

That thinking isn't exclusive to McGill. The academic community has always encouraged students to volunteer as a way of gaining a wider palette of experiences during their learning years.

Indeed, in his installation address last year, the University of Toronto's new president, Robert Birgeneau, stressed that all students should assist community groups while they're in school.

"Research suggests that if you do not participate in voluntarism when you are young, then you are unlikely to do so later in life," he said, noting university students should feel even more compelled to volunteer, since higher education is a societal privilege. "With that privilege comes the obligation to give back to society."

Jukier calls volunteering "a civic duty." Whether students give time to a soup kitchen or a street shelter, she says, "volunteering can show them facets of life they don't already know."

She's quick to point out that on-campus volunteering can be equally rewarding. McGill Student Orientation, Walksafe, DriveSafe and various clubs or activities exist because of volunteers. "And these are just a few examples of where students can lend support within the Roddick Gates," she says.

For Gabor, Crangle and Prehogan -- studying, respectively, in arts, management and science -- having an opportunity to experience life beyond McGill's campus was one of the incentives for joining Santropol Roulant. "It allows us to step outside our ghetto, step away from our student bubble, and see different people," Gabor says.

Anthropology student Ariel Burns joined the McGill Students For Literacy (MSL) two years ago for similar reasons. As one of 40 volunteers for the MSL's Youth Outreach Program (YOP), Burns helps troubled teens living in group homes improve their reading skills.

While promoting the printed word is rewarding, she admits volunteering with her particular MSL clientele can be tough: The YOP mentors 13-to-18-year-olds, whose interests are as varied as their ages. And while some are keen on learning, others are resentful.

That's why MSL volunteers spend two hours planning every visit and reading activity, which can involve everything from writing poetry to baking cookies. "You always need several back-ups," Burns says, "since there are many times when the teens don't like what you have scheduled."

Combine that with occasional insults and the stress of working in group homes, says biochemistry student Nisha Mistry, "and working with the YOP can be emotionally draining."

But Mistry , the head coordinator at the MSL, which includes some 80 additional volunteers through its adult literacy and children's reading programs, says students are still keen on helping out. "We often have to turn away people to avoid having too many volunteers for our capacity," she says, noting few are dissuaded by the organization's five hours per week time commitments either.

Mistry says a clear payback encourages people to volunteer. "There's a great satisfaction that comes from helping others," she says. "Volunteering can help make an impact in a life."

That opportunity to make a difference large or small, agrees Burns, "makes volunteering worthwhile."

Considering the potential rewards, science student Hasini Palihapitiya finds it difficult to understand why even more students don't give volunteering a try.

A three-year volunteer at McGill's Big Buddies Tutoring Club and co-president of the organization, which assists grade and high school students, she says her typical commitment has been three hours per week.

"What's three hours in one week?" she asks. "It's quite easy to find when you manage your time well."

Not to mention, she says, "that Big Buddies has allowed me to combine my love of kids and teaching."

Another bonus to volunteering is how it can help students get jobs, says Gregg Blachford, director of McGill's Student Career and Placement Services. Though in most cases, he adds, students must prove how their volunteer experience can benefit a future employer.

"It's not enough to list volunteer activities on a CV," Blachford says. "A student needs to articulate how volunteering taught them how to work in teams, helped sharpen their interpersonal or leadership skills: qualities employers are always seeking."

Students should also keep in mind, Blachford says, that some fields are better suited to parlaying volunteerism into paying work. "Professional links are easier to attain in helping fields, like social work, where many traditional volunteer opportunities exist," he says.

Of course, most students volunteer for reasons other than career advancement. Take Astrid Christoffersen-Deb. "I've been volunteering since I was in grade school," she says. "So I don't see volunteering as a way to boost a CV, it simply becomes part of your life."

The graduating medical student, who recently became McGill's most recent Rhodes Scholar, has given time to a dizzying number of organizations during her four university years. Examples include a position as chair of the WHO Health Assembly at McGill's Model United Nations Conference, president of the United Nations Student Association of McGill University, admissions committee member for the Faculty of Medicine, and a half dozen other projects.

Despite spending nearly 30 hours a week on these activities alone, Christoffersen-Deb found time to launch the Bedtime Stories Program at the Montreal Children's Hospital in 1998. Three years later, the program is thriving and counts 40 students from various McGill faculties who read stories to patients three times per week. Christoffersen-Deb was eager to launch the program as a device to help young patients escape their suffering, she says, "and allow them to forget they're in a hospital bed."

If Christoffersen-Deb seems like a super-volunteer, she counters she's "duty-bound" to give her time. It's all part of being a good citizen, she says. "My thinking is, if you're old enough to vote, then you should be volunteering, too."

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