Non-Fiction & Memoir

How Volunteering Changed Me Forever

A good resume is a must when we first start out looking for full-time employment. Often though, that first resume is thin in terms of experience – especially relevant experience. On my first resumes I proudly listed under “Previous Experience” jobs such as ‘Organizing Birthday Parties’, ‘Globe & Mail Paper Route’, and ‘Snack Bar Attendant at Cinema.’

The job I had that was hardest to describe on a resume, but the one that made the biggest impact on my life, was a four-year stint as a volunteer. It started with an announcement at high school.  A local organization was looking for volunteers to travel to Smiths Falls, Ontario on Saturdays to the Rideau Regional Hospital School.

The Rideau Regional Hospital School opened in 1951 and closed in 2009. Its residents/patients had developmental disabilities. From the turn of the century, the Ontario Government housed citizens with these disabilities in institutions such as the one in Smiths Falls.  At its peak, there were 2,650 residents and during the time I was a volunteer, 1968-1972, the population hovered around 2,000.

Volunteers from area high schools would gather early Saturday morning at a local shopping mall in the west end of Ottawa, where we would meet a yellow school bus, driven by Bob, a volunteer himself.  The 90-minute bus rides became just as much fun as our volunteer work at the Center. I started volunteering when I was 13 and had just started grade 9.  I went every Saturday for four years.  During the summer of grade 11, I worked full-time at the Center as a “paid” volunteer – my pay being a $50/week stipend from the Ontario Government.

The Rideau Regional Center was a massive complex on the outskirts of Smiths Falls, and was fully equipped for activities. There was a bowling alley, swimming pool, craft and play rooms, a theatre, and outdoor athletic facilities. Our job as volunteers was to socialize, interact, participate and engage in activities with the residents who were educable.  I remember wondering what the heck that meant, but quickly forgot about the classification of the residents as I fell in love with each and every one of them. They were excited to see us on Saturday mornings, sometimes waiting outside to greet our bus.

On my first Saturday as a volunteer, I was assigned to a ward that housed young men. I worked on this ward for most of the four years I was a volunteer. I will never forget Michael, who was three times my age, maybe older, who knows.  He greeted me that first day with the biggest smile and a bear hug that took my breath away. He remained glued to my side for four years and I looked for him every Saturday when I arrived at the Center.  Michael was tall and gangly with crooked teeth and had an aura of goodness and kindness about him that melted my heart.  He held my hand everywhere we went.  Trying to teach him to bowl without holding my hand was tricky. He chuckled the entire time. Michael was mute, with the intellect of maybe a four-year old. He was educable. He proved that by learning how to bowl. 

My full-time stint at the Rideau Regional Center in the summer of 1971 introduced me to the hospital area of the Center that housed and cared for the residents who were immobile and bed-ridden. I cried like a baby the entire ride home after my first day, and consider that day as the end of my childhood.  Overnight I became a full-fledged adult.  Until that time, every Saturday trip to Smiths Falls had been fun and entertaining. My introduction to the poor souls in the hospital ward was gut-wrenching and awfully sad.

The patients on these wards were well cared for, the facility was clean, well-equipped and the staff were wonderful. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why I was assigned to this area of the hospital.  What would I be expected to do with these residents, who could not speak or express themselves, who could not move, and who spent their entire existence in a bed? I was afraid of these people who couldn’t talk to me.  I didn’t understand their needs. I wanted to quit. I was fifteen years old.

But I went back the next day. And every work day that summer. Fulfilled my obligations and fell in love with these residents too. I read to them and never knew if they understood. I fed them pureed food, and never knew if they enjoyed the taste. I changed their diapers. Some days I wheeled their beds outside into the sunshine, and sang to them.  I could write a whole book about Bonnie, my favourite resident on that ward.  She had an angelic face and whatever malady trapped her in her useless body, she was entirely serene and accepting of her fate.

Each and every resident on that ward was special to me, and it was because of them that I decided a few days before my 16th birthday that I would become a nurse. Other than fleeting thoughts in grade school of being a kindergarten teacher or a hairdresser, this was the first time in my life that I felt a calling to a profession.

Circumstances eventually got in the way of that career in nursing. But those Saturdays and summer days spent with the residents of the Rideau Regional Center taught me to look beyond the obvious and find the ‘special’ in everyone. Michael, Bonnie and the other residents showed me how to find joy in the simplest of things, like breathlessly watching a slow-moving bowling ball stay out of the gutter, and singing in the sunshine.