On the nighttime streets of Vancouver, Ellen Shonsta gives a whole new meaning to meals on wheels. Every day, seven days a week, she packs a little trailer with hot food, hitches it to her electric scooter and rolls through the West End neighbourhood feeding the hungry. "It's so wonderful to be able to give," says Ellen, as she prepares chili for the evening.
Across the country, thousands of Canadians are contributing their time, energy and compassion to making the lives of those less fortunate a bit better. They're shuttling seniors to medical appointments each week, collecting food for the needy, serving in soup kitchens, babysitting in shelters or tutoring new immigrants -- finding ways to help. Their kindness and commitment come from a deep sense of wanting to give something back to their community, to make a difference in someone's life. But anyone who volunteers discovers something else, something surprising. As the saying goes, "It's better to give than to receive."
Ellen sees her rewards in the faces of the people she feeds every night in Vancouver. She wheels through a densely populated neighbourhood that lies between the city's downtown core and Stanley Park, serving clients ranging in age from 11 to 80. With the help of two or three other volunteers, she hands out hot meals -- chili, pasta and stews -- along with salads, dessert and coffee.
Vitamins, socks and underwear are also distributed to the street people who gather for her meals and her affection. "The most important things I give out are hugs," she says with a laugh. "And I get a lot of hugs and smiles back."
She feeds between 400 and 600 people each night, starting at 7 p.m. and returning home early in the morning. "I can't rest," says Ellen, 60, who is disabled with degenerative arthritis. "I worry about the kids out there."
A sense of worth
Many of those she feeds are looking for a quick conversation or simply some kind of acknowledgment. Don't have a loonie for the homeless man on the corner? Give him a smile instead, says Ellen. "They want to feel they exist."
Cash donations from sympathetic donors she meets along her route help cover the bills; volunteers, including a former recipient and, sometimes, her grandchildren, help with the preparations and delivery. Her tireless work has earned Ellen the nickname Mom on the streets.
It's about making connections, she insists. It's about investing a bit of your life in someone else's and enjoying the returns. "When you make a connection with someone who has no one, it changes his life because he realizes he's worthy," says Ellen. "And this changes your life because you've changed his."
Volunteering has lasting benefits: you improve someone's life, contribute to your community and, as a bonus, enhance your own life. Talk to a volunteer and she'll tell you about the good feeling she gets from being needed and useful. Walk into a food bank where volunteers are sorting cans or a church basement where meals are being served to the homeless and there's a happy buzz in the air. It's rewarding to act selflessly and it's never too late or too early to start.
Getting an early start volunteering
Jamie Sneddon was 13 years old and growing up in London, Ont., when his mother made a Christmas wish that continues to shape his life. "She asked my younger brother and me to spend a day in a soup kitchen during the holidays rather than buy each other gifts," remembers Jamie, now 28. "Another year, we bought a Christmas basket of toys and a turkey for a needy family. She got me started."
His mother's generous spirit that winter inspired Jamie to continue volunteering. Last year it took him to a tiny impoverished village in Mexico. He gave up a week's vacation to join a World Vision expedition to Xico, a sun-baked community in dire need of new roofs. Jamie paid for the trip himself, as stipulated by World Vision. He raised $2,000 from family and friends to cover his flight from Toronto to Mexico City and his accommodations. "It's probably no more than you'd spend on a resort vacation for 10 days," says Jamie, a TV assignment editor in Toronto.
Caring for the world community
Upon arriving in Xico, Jamie and two other volunteers were shocked by what they saw: ramshackle homes with no running water, leaky roofs that made some rooms uninhabitable during rainstorms and families of four or five sharing a single bedroom. "This would be abject poverty in Canada, but in Xico it was almost middle class," says Jamie.
The team immediately set to work, repairing leaky roofs for three families over a week. They also played with the local children, moving one father to tears. "He thanked me for fixing his roof and said, â€˜You've played with my children and laughed with them.' Then he started to cry," recalls Jamie. "I was crying, too."
Before flying to Mexico, he and the other volunteers were each required to find sponsors for three Xico children. Jamie sponsored one himself, and his mother and her friend sponsored two more. One day in Xico, the volunteers gathered the nine children and their families together, meeting them for the first time. Jamie had hoped to play soccer with his foster child, Sami, but found the boy was disabled and unable to speak. So, the volunteers sang to the children, handed out small gifts and made artwork. The picture Sami drew for Jamie hangs on his fridge and is a reminder of a bond that most sponsors don't have with foster children in other countries. "I've played with Sami and met his mother. Now, when my monthly cheques are sent to him, there's a connection."
Upon returning home, Jamie found that the experience had helped him as well. His bachelor apartment is like a castle compared with the shanties he helped rebuild in Xico, and he has discovered a new appreciation for life in Canada. He's also keen to volunteer his services in another needy part of the world. "Many of us wonder whether we're doing anything important in our day-to-day lives, whether we're making a difference," says Jamie. "But when you repair a roof for someone less fortunate, you discover you can make a difference."
For many volunteers, their commitments turn into long, satisfying chapters in their lives. The desire to give never fades and could last years, if not a lifetime. Such is the case of Silvia Ruegger, who shivers inside a hockey rink every weekend with Stevie*, the nine-year-old boy who entered her life five years ago.
It's an unlikely relationship between Silvia, an enthusiastic former Olympic marathoner, and Stevie, a reserved boy from a single-parent home. She spends time with him each week, using her love of sports to encourage him and provide chances he might not otherwise enjoy. "I want him to know that his circumstances don't need to define who he is," she says.
She was teaching Sunday school when she first met Stevie in one of her classes. He appeared sullen and withdrawn, but bounced with energy. "This little guy needed someone to run and play with him," says Silvia, 42.
"His single mother was struggling, and he was falling through in the cracks." No formal arrangements were made. Silvia just started calling regularly, asking if Stevie was free to kick around a ball or ride a bike. As he got older, Silvia enrolled him in sports: hockey in the winter, soccer in the summer. She often pays for the fees and equipment if his mother can't. She drives Stevie to practices and games, then cheers him on from the sidelines.
Last summer Silvia spent a week volunteering at Stevie's sports camp on the shore of Lake Simcoe in Ontario, even sleeping in a cabin of 15 little boys as a cabin counsellor. Being this close to a child, his family and his life is a long-term commitment, but Silvia says she knew her involvement with Stevie would be a lasting one. "I wasn't going to do this for a couple of years and then leave him," says Silvia. "I knew I needed to be consistent, and it hasn't been difficult at all."
Too often, she says, there are children who face constant discouragement that eats away at their dreams. Their family lives may be miserable: not enough money to buy soccer shoes or skates, no one to register them for music lessons. "These kids had dreams for themselves, and those dreams waned because the kids couldn't participate or were put down," says Silvia. "That's why I tell people to get involved in the life of a child."
Despite their closeness, Silvia understands that her relationship with Stevie will change as he gets older. They may eventually drift apart, but Stevie will have had many years of Silvia's generosity and belief in him. "He'll always know there's someone who loves him and cares about him," says Silvia. Just a few hours a week have made such a difference in Stevie's life and hers. Perhaps a few hours can make a difference in yours as well.
*Name has been changed.