One night I was writing a blog post about apathy, or what’s wrong with the world, or something completely unbearable like that – something that was exceeding wanky and self-righteous even for me.
I wanted to talk about how we’re collectively not doing enough to protect, support and positively enhance the lives of those most vulnerable. My outline said vague things like “youth inaction”, “dearth of community” and “the Christians are winning at the Jesus-y stuff”. It was an indictment of my community, but it was also basically just thinly-veiled self-loathing. Wait hold on, I need to write that down. Thinly Veiled Self Loathing. [I think it's an important practice to record all possible memoir titles.]
So anyway. I was writing this bad thing about how bad everyone is at doing good stuff or something.
And I had this moment where I was like, “You know what, Sam Mullins, you self-referencing-in-the-third-person-sonofabitch? You don’t GET to critique or have opinions about your community at large. You know why? Because maybe you don’t know the first thing about your community at large. Because I’ve been following you on Instagram and Facebook, Sam. And y’know what I see? A bunch of insulated privilege. You live in one of the most culturally diverse cities on the planet, but for the most part, you exist and mingle only within the tiniest social sliver of this kickass pie. “Love Thy Neighbour”? Pfft, you don’t even know your neighbours. You need to branch out, dude. Go contribute! Meet new people! Help someone out! Quit being the worst!”
So I scrapped the blog post, went on Google and typed in: “Where to Volunteer in Toronto”.
And volunteering is one of those things that I’ve always wanted to do. I never really had an idea of where or what that might look like. I just had this vague idea of me being there for someone or something. Whatever that meant.
And luckily, Toronto has an amazing volunteer website where all of the postings are arranged by “clients served”. So you can check out listings that serve homeless people or children or seniors or people with special needs or the LGBTQ community or even animals. So, I started reading through the listings and I contacted a few that interested me.
And now, six months later, Tuesdays are known in my Google Calendar as simply, “Volunteer Tuesdays”. And y’know what? I frickin’ love Volunteer Tuesdays.
Every Tuesday morning, I wake up and head over to the old folks home where I pick up my good friend Moe (not his real name obvs) for a coffee at Tim Horton’s. He’s Bosnian-Canadian. He came to Canada as a teen not knowing a single word of English. He’s lived a great life and raised a beautiful family. He’s just about 90, and is struggling with dementia and memory loss, but that doesn’t stop the flow of our conversations. Every week, we talk about life, love, religion, addiction, the weather, fatherhood and then we Roll Up the Goddamn Rim – and never win. Not once.
Also, every week, usually two or three times, this exact exchange will take place:
MOE – You’ll have to excuse me, I seem to have lost my bearings. I don’t quite remember who you are, or why we’re here.
ME - I completely understand. So, here’s the scoop. I’m Sam and I come by to pick you up for coffee every Tuesday. Your wife sends us off with this, a fully-loaded Tim Horton’s card so that we can get a coffee and a muffin. You get the medium double double, and I get the extra large regular, and we sit down right here at this very table every week and talk the afternoon away.
MOE – [smiling in disbelief] At this table?
ME – At this very table.
MOE – Jazakallah. Do you know what jazakallah means?
ME – [I lie] No.
MOE – May Allah reward you.
Then after I drop Moe back at his room, I head down to visit my other friend Charles (another totally made up name). This dude jumped out of a plane with a rifle by night into Nazi-occupied France when he was a teenager. His stories are insane. He told me about how when he was little, he used to talk to old men who’d fought in the American Civil War. I’m talking to a guy who talked to guy who talked to Lincoln. He’s a wealth of knowledge and experience, and I could talk to him forever.
That said, he was very challenging to get “in” with at first. The staff warned me that he might be a bit prickly at times. They also told me to read up on my WWII history so that I’d be able to hold up my end of the conversation. Some days, Charles will effortlessly talk about his life for hours without much prompting. And some days upon seeing my face he’ll shout from behind his Globe and Mail, “I’m busy right now! Go away!”
Once he was telling me about how he fell in love with an upper-class Dutch girl in the weeks following the war. She wanted to come with him back to England, but he felt, given his profession and lack of money, that he could never take care of her in the way that she deserved. He said goodbye, got on the train and never saw her again.
I asked him if they ever wrote each other letters. He said:
“No. I didn’t think it appropriate. My father used to say:
Don’t write to her. Do right by her.”
Then after a few hours at the old folks home, I zip over to the YMCA to meet up with Stepstones for Youth. They’re similar to Big Brothers Big Sisters, working with youths raised in the foster care system who are economically disadvantaged and/or have a history of trauma and abuse. The organization started out as an all-girls summer camp, but has since expanded to offer year-round mentorship to both young women and men, providing high-level skill development and scholastic support.
So yeah. The kids are the best. The other mentors are the best. And the two women who run the organization are like angels sent from heaven. We do cooking workshops, I help out with tutoring, I mentor and I even decorated this embarrassingly bad clay pot for some reason:
This week is National Volunteer Week and I wanted to share the positive experiences I’ve had as a volunteer these past six months. If you’ve ever thought about becoming a volunteer, you should do it.
Cities can be tricky, I think.
There are SO MANY people from SO MANY places with SO MANY different cultural backgrounds. But. There are also so many people exactly like you, too.
I had to take a step back to realize that all the people I know and associate with are from very similar backgrounds to me.
And I thought, “What’s the fun in that?”
I wanted to learn about my community. I wanted to talk to older people and younger people and people from different places with different religions and soci0-economic backgrounds. And through volunteering, I was able to cast a much wider social net.
So now when I look out my window at the rooftops and the schools and skyscrapers and the parks of my community, I actually know what it is that I’m looking at.
At least a little bit.