BY AMANDA OYE
Helping neighbours in need, sharing stories, eating a healthy meal, and laughing, all while in great company, is a pretty good way to spend a Saturday morning – just ask the volunteers at the Richmond Food Bank’s Ageless Volunteerism program.
The program brings seniors and students together every Saturday to spend the morning completing a variety of tasks for the Food Bank and then enjoy a delicious lunch.
Since 2011, when the program started, a community has developed amongst the volunteers. They are bonded by a common desire to give back to the larger community and to spend time in each others company, sharing stories and working alongside one another.
The program is held every Saturday because it is a non-busy day.
“It’s a stress-free volunteer environment,” says Keith Yee, Programs Coordinator at the Richmond Food Bank Society. This makes it accessible to everyone, regardless of mobility concerns. The tasks are always manageable and the pace is easy-going – an important consideration because many of the program’s volunteers are seniors.
“It was started for isolated seniors,” says Keith. The program gives them a place to go each week and a chance to socialize with other seniors as well as students. Maria, a regular volunteer, has benefited immensely from the program for exactly this reason. “I was feeling lonely at home,” she says. “It’s nice because I’ve come to meet a lot of nice people.”
For Draigh, a senior who has been volunteering with the program for two years now, the work gives him a sense of purpose. “This is my highlight of my week,” Draigh says. “I feel good about myself. I’m contributing to society.”
Draigh started volunteering after Johanna, the program’s Expressive Art Therapist, ran into him at the hospital and recommended it. Johanna was at the hospital working on her practicum in art therapy and recognized him as someone who used the Food Bank, where she was a volunteer.
Among several other injuries, Draigh had two broken legs, but as soon as he was able, he started participating in the Ageless Volunteerism program. He is doing much better now and every Saturday morning he gets on his bike, comes to the Food Bank, and volunteers.
“Thursdays I come here as a client, Saturdays I come here as a volunteer,” he says. Through the program, he has made friends and it has enabled him to give back to the community what he can.
Draigh is one of anywhere from 18-25 people who participate in the program each week.
Of those, there is a group of about seven volunteers, including Draigh, who, in addition to the regular activities of the day, also participate in art therapy sessions with Johanna.
Seniors can suffer from isolation, depression, and addiction, so art therapy is a valuable way for them to work through any issues they may be having, according to Johanna.
“It’s about mental health,” she says. “It’s nice to have that therapeutic element.”
Johanna is there most Saturdays to run sessions, typically meeting with one to two people each day, with each session lasting about an hour.
“I’ve come a long way since I started working with her,” Draigh says. “Before I saw Johanna, I used to see myself as a victim, now I see myself as a survivor.”
Draigh is able to talk about his issues now, and he is regaining some of the memories he had been suppressing. Through art therapy, he discovered that by blocking out painful memories he was also blocking out a lot of happy ones – memories that he is now thankful he can recall.
“They’re great memories. I’m glad I have them again,” Draigh says. “I have concrete results. It’s really improved my quality of life.”
Art therapy has helped him a lot, but Draigh enjoys every part of the Ageless Volunteerism program – from the tasks assigned at the beginning of the day to clean up time after lunch.
While there are a large number of seniors, like Draigh, who participate in the program, and benefit from it because the workload is lighter than it is during the week, people of all ages are encouraged to come out. The program is perfect for high school students who want to volunteer at the Food Bank but are in school during the regular weekday shifts.
Lisa is a high school student who has been volunteering with the program for two years, and has been inspired by many of the stories told to her by the seniors she works alongside each Saturday. She has learned a lot about their families and about their lives.
“It was really interesting to listen to them … it was pretty inspiring,” she says. They have been through a lot, “like losing their partners or not being able to communicate with their children.”
Lisa tends to gravitate towards the Chinese seniors because she can act as a translator for them. There is a group of seniors who participate in the program who do not speak English, so the bilingual volunteers help translate. Despite language barriers, volunteers who have a harder time with English are still able to participate in the culture of the Ageless Volunteerism program and feel like they are part of its unique community.
Alice and Anna are a young mother and daughter duo who have been volunteering with the program for just a few months. They had been living in Canada for less than a year when a friend recommended that they volunteer with the program. Anna doesn’t speak much English, but her daughter, Alice, speaks a little bit. Even with a language barrier, both have become a part of the small community and have made new friends. It’s an experience they will never forget.
“We’re really happy to help someone else,” Alice says. Volunteering at the Food Bank has made both of them feel like a part of Canada in a larger sense.
While the program currently has three components – volunteering, expressive arts therapy, and eating together – Keith hopes that it will grow and include a recreational aspect one day, to give the volunteers a chance to learn new things.
“It’s not just about working,” he says. “Now I want them to have more fun.”
For more information on the Ageless Volunteerism program, visit the Richmond Food Bank’s website.