'Karma' program courts young volunteers in Vancouver

Teen volunteers pay for transit fares and lunches

A volunteer stint over spring break had 16-year-old Fiona Zeng feeling like an oompa loompa in a chocolate factory.

Zeng channelled her inner Willy Wonka worker to stuff toiletry bags for homeless people for Under One Umbrella Society.

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The David Thompson student said she gave in to participating in South Vancouver Neighbourhood Houses new Karma Connections volunteering program for youth during her vacation after most of her friends signed up.

The neighbourhood houses youth settlement counsellor Emina Hurtic and youth sustainability programmer Chelan Wallace created Karma Connections to provide teens with meaningful volunteering experiences and to soothe their boredom over spring break. They expected 12 to 15 students to attend the first Karma Connections meeting, but 42 showed up.

The students considered where they wanted to volunteer and divided into groups and required to volunteer at three organizations to receive a certificate. In just six days, 48 David Thompson and Killarney secondary school teens provided 641 volunteer hours to organizations that include the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, Environmental Youth Alliance and Marpole Family Place. A lot of them, to my surprise, were newcomers and arent just new to Canada but are completely new to this volunteer system and completely new to all of these societal, environmental, human rights issues, Hurtic said.

She served as mentor to a shift at the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House. It was really neat for me to see that they connected with the people in the Downtown Eastside community and head on attacked this idea of us versus them, Hurtic said.

Sixteen-year-old David Thompson student Connie Wong helped clean a park, took out-of-school-care kids bowling and volunteered for the B.C. Housing Kidz Club. I learned not to judge that fast, she said.

Zeng phoned donors for Covenant Houses thank-a-thon. The donors and I have felt the warmth in our hearts, and the donor would feel gratitude while I would feel appreciated to be able to do what I was doing, she said.

Youth got their hands dirty at the Many Small Hands Garden in Ladner on an exceptionally cold, rainy and snowy day.

None of the volunteers complained. They were all eager to help out, and a lot of them had never gardened before. Theyd never gotten their hands dirty, Wallace said. No one wanted to stop they were very dedicated.

Karma Connections ran with minimal costs. Teens provided their own transit fares and lunches, so the neighbourhood house only had to worry about staff supervision.

It hopes to extend the program to other periods when students could potentially participate in risky behaviour, including on professional development days at schools, weekends and over the summer.

A lot of the youth have very wicked, idealistic values. They want to do something good to change the world and karmas really fitting with that belief, Wallace said. We really wanted them to establish new connections with new organizations and to have the ability to then go forward and make their own new volunteer connections and know how to volunteer in the future, on their own.

Zeng expects she and her friends would participate again.

Our butts are kind of stuck to the chairs in front of [computer] screens, so sometimes we want to get out, she said. While it benefits us, it benefits other people as well.

crossi@vancourier.com

Twitter: @Cheryl_Rossi

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