Want to give back while social distancing? Here are 4 ways to volunteer from home
Many charitable organizations need more help than ever and have virtual volunteer options
Canadians can help flatten the COVID-19 curve by staying at home and practicing proper safety measures when they need to be in public. Beyond these measures, there are ways to battle potential feelings of helplessness by giving help to others. Just because we are social distancing doesn't mean we can't give back. In fact, remote volunteers have been crucial in supporting charitable organizations overwhelmed by demand.
For example, since March 12, text-based crisis support at Kids Help Phone has increased by 62 per cent, and phone counselling by 55 per cent. The influx led to a callout for new volunteers and the implementation of an accelerated training program. Similarly, Ed Carlson, Director of Development at Youth Assisting Youth, notes an increased demand and need for more mentoring services (and other support). "[Our clients] are experiencing mental health issues as they cope with the pandemic and stay-at-home order, Carlson says. "We know that the mentoring relationship is now more important."
You may be eager to start but considering whether you have the bandwidth is key. Cara Chen, manager of community crisis responders at Kids Help Phone notes that emotional well-being is vital for their volunteers. "We ask all of our volunteers to check in on their own self-care frequently, and come up with ways to relax, reflect, and reward themselves following a difficult shift."
Below, four Canadian organizations that are accepting volunteers nationwide. And of course there are plenty local options (like local senior support centres) and global efforts (some can be sought out via the UN's Online Volunteering portal), too.
Kids Help Phone provides professional counselling and volunteer-led bilingual text support to those in crisis. "Kids Help Phone was virtual before we needed to be," Chen says. Volunteers go through 36 hours of online training to become 'crisis responders'. The training equips volunteers with skills like reflective listening, collaborative problem solving and crisis management.
Once crisis responders are certified, they are encouraged to spend a minimum of four hours per week on the online platform responding to texts. While the work can be challenging, Chen notes that the well-being of volunteers is a top priority for Kids Help Phone. All volunteers are supported by a coach during training, a supervisor during shifts, and an online community of peer support.
Youth Assisting Youth is dedicated to empowering at-risk and newcomer youth by providing them with mentorship. "Our primary focus and core program is our community-based, one-to-one peer mentoring program," Carlson says, "where volunteer youth mentors spend an average of three hours per week with their mentee, aged 6 to 15." In response to social distancing measures, Youth Assisting Youth has developed specialized virtual mentorship programs that include drop-in for after school activities and parent support groups — all pivoted to online platforms like Zoom.
Mentors complete eight to 10 hours of training covering topics such as, anti-racism, anti-bullying, mental health awareness, while tutors complete a shorter training designed to help them improve their communication with children and youth. Youth Assisting Youth offers all volunteers support from a staff social worker as well as access to a 24/7 emergency support line.
The CNIB Foundation aids Canadians impacted by blindness through programming and advocacy. "For Canadians who are blind or partially sighted, physical distancing can present a unique set of challenges that can contribute to feelings of isolation," says Filomena DiRuscio, program lead for volunteer engagement at CNIB. CNIB has adapted one of its core offerings, the 'vision mate' program, to allow volunteers to connect remotely with participants. The program matches Canadians living with blindness with volunteers for one-to-one phone calls twice a week for 20-30 minutes.
'Vision mate' offers friendly conversation and support. While no formal training or qualifications are required, DiRuscio says volunteers should be "caring individuals who are good listeners." Successful applicants are matched and provided a manual to prepare for their role. Volunteers also have access to CNIB team leads for any additional support needed.
Together Project pairs refugee newcomers with 'welcome groups', with the goal of creating stronger, more integrated communities. "Social isolation is also a concern for many newcomers, especially those who arrived in Canada alone, or as a single parent," says Andrew Lusztyk, co-director of Together Project, "...our program is especially important right now." Volunteer groups of five are matched with a newcomer (or newcomer household) to provide social support in a number of ways, from practicing English, to socializing, to navigating healthcare and job search.
Together Project requires a volunteers to commit to four hours of support per month for six months. Volunteers attend a training session focused on working with vulnerable newcomers, providing trauma-informed care, understanding the refugee settlement process, and learning how to access various services. "Despite being a form of 'remote' volunteering, our volunteers are still expected to be present, in the sense of being both responsive and proactive," Lusztyk says. "This takes time and emotional bandwidth. We definitely ask volunteers to confirm their commitment to both ahead of participating in the program."
Sula Greene is a writer and producer from Toronto.