Volunteering is more than just helping others; there are tremendous benefits to the volunteers themselves. In this episode, Peter speaks with Deb Walsh, Manager of Volunteer Services at Community Living Mississauga and Mark Overton, Dean of Student Affairs and Assistant Principal of Student Services at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), about the value of volunteerism, the opportunities available at Community Living Mississauga, and their partnership with UTM's Community On Campus Program which pairs students with individuals who have an intellectual disability to experience life on campus.
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Peter Reynolds: Welcome to Community Living Out Loud brought to you by Community Living Mississauga. I’m your host Peter Reynolds. On this podcast we celebrate the lives of persons who have an intellectual disability and the incredible work being done to advocate on behalf of them and their families. Through conversations with experts, advocates and persons with lived experience, we hope to inspire and educate listeners on the importance of building strong, inclusive communities. Let’s get loud.
Volunteering is an incredibly valuable experience that benefits both the individual and society as a whole. By donating their time volunteers gain new skills, expand their social networks and even improve their mental and physical health. In this episode we’re going to talk about the opportunities for volunteering at Community Living Mississauga and how volunteers are making a profound impact in the lives of persons who have an intellectual disability. And joining me to talk about that is Deb Walsh, manager of volunteer services at Community Living Mississauga. Welcome to the podcast, Deb.
Deb Walsh: Thank you, Peter, for having me. What an advocate for volunteer engagement. You should be one of our professionals.
Peter Reynolds: Well thank you very much. [Laughter] I’m really looking forward to this conversation because I think, you know, volunteers are the lifeblood of organizations like Community Living Mississauga but I don’t think necessarily everyone knows as much as they could, you know, about the opportunities that exist.
Deb Walsh: That’s true. Hopefully this will help today.
Peter Reynolds: So Deb, maybe we can start with just telling us how many volunteers you have at Community Living Mississauga.
Deb Walsh: That’s a good question. Thank you, Peter. Before COVID we were we were edging up somewhere around 350 to 400 volunteers a year. But of course we took a hit during COVID and I would say, Peter, that approximately 90 to 100 volunteers stayed faithful to us during that time. And of course we’re reopening things now and we’re certainly hoping to rebuild our volunteer network.
Peter Reynolds: What are some of the roles that volunteers play in the organization?
Deb Walsh: Oh there’s so many things, Peter. They certainly complement the role of our employees. So let’s start with our board of directors. They are all volunteers. There are people on our board of directors who are professionals who are family members of people who have an intellectual disability. They are people who have an intellectual disability and their concerned citizens in Mississauga. So that’s a start. Then we have committees. We have fundraising committees. We have a rights review committee. We have several different fundraising committees. We have corporate volunteers who come in and support us with spring and fall cleanups at the 30-plus residential homes that we have we have volunteers who do individual work in the many different supports we have across Community Living Mississauga.
So there are many, many roles for volunteers at Community Living Mississauga.
Peter Reynolds: How integral would you say volunteers are to your organization?
Deb Walsh: Well, let’s start with our mission. Our mission is to meaningfully improve the quality of life for people who have an intellectual disability. And our employees cannot do that alone and so we really believe that volunteers complement, as I said before, the work of our employees. And in doing so more people’s lives can be improved through the work of volunteers and student placements – I’m also responsible for student placements.
So between volunteers and student placements we could not do as much to improve the quality of life for people that we support.
Peter Reynolds: In the introduction I touched on some of the benefits to the individual when it comes to volunteering, whether it’s personal growth or expansion of social networks. What are some of the other benefits that volunteers get when they participate?
Deb Walsh: Well, you did an incredible introduction. There are so many benefits to volunteering. I’m just looking down at my notes because I don’t want to miss any. We have a lot of young volunteers. When I say young volunteers I mean anywhere from the age of 15 to about 30. And some of the – and then we have some older adults too. But some of the benefits that we have are personal growth of the people who are volunteering. And by personal growth I mean they can grow socially. They can develop employment skills. They can develop social skills, interpersonal skills. A lot of the volunteers talk about transformational experiences.
Very, very shy people who start with us are maybe grade 10 or grade 11 or first year of university and then just blossom as they become volunteers. Physical, as you’ve mentioned. Physical, mental health improves. Research has shown that the more connections we have, the more volunteering we do, the healthier, the happier, the longer our lives will be.
I have family members who suffer from anxiety and depression and I know for a fact that volunteering lifts those moods. And we are dealing now with a society that’s inundated with mental health issues. And volunteering helps. Helping someone else helps yourself. Improving your confidence, improving your speaking skills. Volunteering can enhance your career; you never know what doors are going to open as you volunteer. And of course volunteering is fun and can bring lots of friendships and fulfillment to your life.
I mean, I could go on and on. There are so many benefits to volunteering and I hope people re-enter the volunteer force again.
Peter Reynolds: Yeah. I know for myself, I’m starting to see it from both sides of the spectrum in the sense of my mother who’s in her 80s. And when she was volunteering at the school, you know, it’s an opportunity for seniors to, you know, work with young people, you know, and get that that energy back. You know? That sort of youthful energy, you know, when they’re working with young people. And also seniors helping senior seniors and working.
Deb Walsh: Absolutely.
Peter Reynolds: So many opportunities to get out there to get back in the community. And then on the flipside my son has just turned 14, so he’s starting high school next year. And so now of course top of mind is his volunteer hours. But I know from his personality that he’s not aiming for 40. 40 is not the maximum that he’s thinking about. He’s really, you know, somebody who wants to give back. So it’s very interesting to see, you know, from those two perspectives. Two very different volunteers.
Deb Walsh: Both good points. Both valid points, Peter. I have a mother who’s 88 who’s volunteering at the Milton Prison. And then I see the benefits of young high school students doing 200-plus hours and gaining a wealth of experience that makes them even more desirable for our post high school education. We all need real life experience. So both good points.
Peter Reynolds: So what volunteer opportunities are currently available at Community Living Mississauga?
Deb Walsh: Well, thank you for asking. We right now are looking for volunteers for our day supports. That’s working with adults who have an intellectual disability. We have four-and-a-half, five, day support programs where adults come for the day to accomplish their personal goals, have fun in a leisure recreational setting. So we have opportunities there.
This summer we’re going to have opportunities for teens who are 15 and up to participate in our summer teen activity program where they come alongside teenagers who have an intellectual disability and support them to enjoy all that summer has to offer.
We have a wonderful one-on-one program where volunteers are matched with someone who’s living independently in the community. And I am just getting incredible feedback about the relationships that are growing between the volunteers and the people they’re supporting.
One gentleman is going to baseball games and the aquarium and looking at cars and doing all kinds of things with the person he’s supporting. And both people are growing. We do have opportunities in our respite programs, which is on – which are on weekends and during the week.
And of course I know we’re going to touch on that a bit later but we have many opportunities in our Community on Campus program, which we will discuss in a little bit.
Peter Reynolds: It’s really interesting to see all the different opportunities. And I think that’s a big part of, you know, when people are thinking about volunteering for an organization. They’re asking themselves where do I fit. And it seems that at Community Living Mississauga there’s really a place for everyone.
Deb Walsh: Absolutely. Absolutely. So when I meet people I get to know them and I figure out what skills they have and also what their personality is like and what they want to accomplish. That’s even bigger. What do you want out of this volunteer experience? And so once I learn all those things, then I put them in a role that I think that will be a best fit for them.
Peter Reynolds: That’s really interesting: this idea of what essentially do I want to get out of it? Because I think, you know, there obviously there’s the altruistic nature of volunteering. You want to help the community. You know? But it’s not unfair to say, you know, what is it that you’re looking for as well, you know, to make you a better fit? And I would assume that the better fit you are the longer term you’re going to be with the organization.
Deb Walsh: Peter, that is an excellent point because I advocate that people have to come into volunteering with two things in mind. One: how am I going to give back to my community? I want to give back to my community. The other thing is: what can I take away with me from this volunteer experience? And when people have both things, then they are more committed, volunteer, and they tend to stay with us a little longer.
Peter Reynolds: And I was struck by what you mentioned with your day programs when you’re pairing up individuals or in the respite program that both individuals are taking something away. And I can absolutely see that with a diverse volunteer force, if we want to call it that – that, you know, they’re learning from the person who has intellectual disability and that lived experience. But they’re also learning from them. So whatever cultural background they happen to be from. And it could be different week to week or it could be different year to year but they’re also learning and experiencing different lived experiences.
Deb Walsh: And isn’t that what inclusion is all about, Peter? That we learn from each other. And I have to tell you that I have learned some of the biggest lessons in my life from people who are the most vulnerable. Lessons about friendship. Lessons about how we all need the same things in life: to be valued, to be respected, to be loved. Those things are all in all of us.
Peter Reynolds: I wanted to touch on, you know, commitment and loyalty and sort of building that, you know, within your volunteers. And going back to what you talked about during COVID, when all day programs ended, and it’s my understanding that some of the volunteers got together and sort of identified, you know, the need to sort of decrease the social isolation and came up with a virtual social initiative, I believe it was. Can you talk to that a little bit?
Deb Walsh: How did you hear that?
Peter Reynolds: I do my research, Deb.
Deb Walsh: [Laughter] Well, you are doing a good job. So Peter, that is excellent because the partner you’re going to be introducing in a few minutes, the people who did this, so let me try and say this concisely. A group of UTM students, Community on Campus students which we will talk about shortly, got together as a group and supported us in putting together a virtual platform and coming up with virtual ideas so that people we support would not remain isolated during COVID. Without the work of these very – by the way I’m very visual so forgive me for using my hands. But this group of students were the catalyst to get this program going and without them we would not have been where we were so quickly. A remarkable, remarkable group of students. I would say somewhere between eight to ten of them.
Peter Reynolds: Absolutely amazing.
Deb Walsh: And all they were all long-term Community on Campus UTM students.
Peter Reynolds: And I love that. You know, this idea that not only are you working with an organization but it’s not like you’re slotted – you know, this is your responsibility. If you have ideas, if you have initiatives, that the organization is open to those.
Deb Walsh: Very much so. And each one of them had different ideas. Some were leaders and could lead the programs. Some were very technical and they came up with the programs. We wouldn’t have any idea of all the platforms if it wasn’t for that group.
Peter Reynolds: So we’ve touched on Community on Campus program can you let’s jump right into it. So, tell me: what is the Community on Campus program?
Deb Walsh: Well, it is a partnership program that started in approximately 1990. And I think our guest is going to expound more on it.
Peter Reynolds: Spoilers, Deb. Spoilers.
Deb Walsh: I would say it’s getting close.
Peter Reynolds: OK.
Deb Walsh: [Laughter] I’m one of those people that reads the spoilers before I watch the show. Anyway, it started in about the 1990s. We’re getting close to our 25th year barring the small break during COVID. A partnership program whereby young adults 21 to 30 could experience university life. So Peter, in Ontario youths can go to school, public school, until they’re 21. Then at 21 the options that are available to them decrease. And if someone doesn’t have a high school diploma that makes working – finding a job that much harder, they certainly wouldn’t have the academic standing to be enrolled in a university. And the university, I’m going to let our guest describe it, but the university welcomed us with open arms and provided a venue for young adults to experience university life.
Peter Reynolds: That’s absolutely amazing. And I definitely wanted to get into more detail about that. So it’s a perfect segue to introduce our featured partner for this episode and he is Mark Overton who is a dean of student affairs and assistant principal student services at University of Toronto Mississauga. Mark, welcome to Community Living Out Loud.
Mark Overton: Thanks. Really happy to be here.
Peter Reynolds: Mark, can you tell me a little bit more about your role at to the university?
Mark Overton: Sure. Student affairs offers programs and supports outside of classes that help students succeed. So we’re offering things like accessibility services, recreation athletics and wellness, health and counselling, career services. We would say all the good things that happen outside of class that support a university student’s success.
Peter Reynolds: I want to get into the weeds when it comes to what this program is all about. But first, why did the university decide to partner with Community Living Mississauga on their Community on Campus program?
Mark Overton: Like Deb mentioned, it’s been a long-time partnership, about 25 years in service. So I actually wasn’t here right when it started but just shortly after I joined the university. But it blossomed out of a specific program we have in psychology called exceptionalities in human learning. And so our students and faculty members who were looking for experiences that really built meaningful learning experiences with different members of our community surrounding UTM.
And that’s kind of how the discussions first started. Could something like this happen? There were a few models in Canada where intellectuals with intellectual disabilities found opportunities to learn in a university environment and we were an early adopter of that model. And it’s blossomed, grown, expanded ever since.
Peter Reynolds: So break it down for me. How does the program work?
Mark Overton: Sure. We – I’m using the big We here. We, UTM and Community on Campus, recruit students who then are partnered with individuals with intellectual disabilities in kind of normal everyday activities that might occur on a university campus. So you might see a group of students and participants together playing cards or working out at the gym or eating a meal together. Sometimes you would even find them sitting in and auditing a class with a student. And it’s to really provide a welcoming and inclusive experience on campus. And that’s one of our core values. We believe we are a really community-connected campus and this is a great example of how we can deliver that.
Peter Reynolds: So in terms of, you know, an individual wants to be part of the program, will get paired up with a student, is it a one-off? How long does it last? Any more?
Mark Overton: A little bit more. I’ll give you the minimum commitment but let me start by saying almost all of our participants far exceed the minimum. So what we ask from students up front is that they provide one hour a week to connect typically with one participant from Community Living Mississauga throughout the duration of one semester. So really that’s only about 20 hours that we’re asking for is the starting commitment.
But what we see is that students are really willing to give more time than that. They see the benefits for themselves and for the participants. It’s a joint a benefit. And they tend to stick with us not only for those 20 hours but to go multiple semesters, sometimes multiple years, and multiple hours per week.
So students love it. They really do. And kind of one piece of evidence of that is it’s been a bit difficult restarting after the pandemic. But the recruitment network of simply students seeing other students taking part in these activities, just tends to multiply the group of volunteers that we have available in student volunteers.
Peter Reynolds: I was going to say: what is it that, you know, keeps the students coming back, do you think?
Mark Overton: It’s both the – there is an academic component to it. So we’re trying to provide ways to weave students’ academic learning and critical thinking with their social and emotional development. So there’s that strong core element that we believe provides real experiential learning for our students. But at the heart of it it’s really about this connection and this sense – this belief in the importance of inclusion. So our students really are dedicated to trying to make these real, meaningful connections. It’s not just a volunteer experience where you’re clicking the hours towards what you want to achieve while you’re here. That may be what lures some people in to start. But I think very quickly, particularly with this program, they really find themselves engaging in an emotional and not just an intellectual way. You know, I believe real true friendships form out of this experience.
That’s what our students see and feel and I think that’s what the participants see and feel – so that the sense of belonging in both groups really grows and intertwines.
Peter Reynolds: And, you know, we’ve got the – from friendships and, you know, that sort of, you know, strengthening of, you know, community and diversity and understanding of sort of the larger community. Can you think of any other benefits that students – from participating in this program?
Mark Overton: Well, let me maybe go two different directions with it. The university always tries to recognize students, volunteers. And it’s important to us it’s because we know it helps them develop. So for students, for example, they get recognition on our – it’s a non-academic transcript, a record of their engagement in other activities, leadership opportunities, volunteerism. So there are things like that that are kind of tangible documentable benefits.
But I really do think the main benefit is the friendships that they build. And it’s kind of in documentable – that they can feel in their bones that they’re making a difference in the world. The exposure that they have when they’re participating with their friends just – it normalizes and regularizes everything. You know? That a really diverse group is hanging out together and doing stuff and obviously having fun.
We actually laugh because how – it’s good that the groups are sometimes in really public settings because they can get loud and obnoxious, like all university-age students can, because they’re having such a great time. And that we’re able to kind of build these sustaining connections. It’s not unusual at all to have alumni – students who graduate – so alumni of UTM, continue to stay connected with Community Living Mississauga and to continue to check in on the program, because they know they made and continue to make a difference.
Peter Reynolds: And Deb, yeah, to that point the can you talk a little bit from the participants’ side and the impact that that this program is having with them?
Deb Walsh: I would say it’s almost dead on the exact same thing that Mark has said. I think confidence grows. I think that people who have an intellectual disability learn best through imitation. So they are learning from the students, volunteers, just as the student volunteers are learning from the participants. I would say it’s a symbiotic relationship where both are growing and developing. Both sets of personal goals are being accomplished.
I, like I said earlier, I have seen very shy, very unconfident first-year university students start the program and then just blossom through their volunteer work with Community on Campus. Thanks to what the participants have taught them.
The participants have taught them many things socially too. We have one young volunteer who won a Peel award last year – a leader of tomorrow award. She spent five years volunteering at Community on Campus. And not that we think that any one profession is better than another but she’s gone on to be a medical doctor and we’re very proud of her that not only has she grown and developed as a person and won an award; she truly will be a leader and an ambassador of tomorrow.
Peter Reynolds: Yeah. From what I’m hearing we’re really building lifelong relationships here.
Deb Walsh: Absolutely. And many of them stay in touch, as Mark said, after the program finishes for both participants. Yeah.
Peter Reynolds: What’s the future of the program, Mark?
Mark Overton: You know what? We – again, it’s difficult to look at this moment and look ahead because of the difficulties the pandemic brought for the suspension of the in-person programming. But my sense is that more and more students from diverse areas of study. So, I mean, again, kind of classically they come from psychology and some of the other social sciences but we’re finding that that is not the pattern anymore – that they’re coming from all sorts of areas. They’re coming with exposure of family members, friends, connections with disabilities and some not. So I think of the opportunity for the program to grow after we kind of get back into normal operating mode, it’s really pretty unlimited.
I think interest both from the community living side and from our student volunteer side has typically been higher than either organization can support. So I think the opportunity is just resources to grow it and build it.
Peter Reynolds: And Deb, your thoughts on the future of the program?
Deb Walsh: I agree completely with Mark. I think that we took a little hit during COVID. A big hit during COVID – that we had to suspend the program for a few years. But now we’re rebuilding and I agree with Mark that the number one way of recruiting more volunteers is through word of mouth and through people seeing other people.
So I believe that as we head into the fall more and more people will be interested as they see and hear more about the program. Yeah.
Mark Overton: And it’s nice to be able just to find those friendly, empathetic students.
Deb Walsh: Yeah. Lots of them, Mark.
Mark Overton: And this is such a great way for them to engage.
Deb Walsh: Yeah. Yeah. And even those, Mark, that aren’t maybe – don’t have the strongest of skills in those areas become more friendly and empathetic through this program.
Mark Overton: Yeah. This is totally – I mean, this is absolutely, completely a two-way learning environment.
Deb Walsh: Absolutely.
Mark Overton: I appreciate what you’re saying around everybody who participates learns from everybody who participates.
Deb Walsh: Yep. Yep.
Mark Overton: And so it can it can be life-changing for anyone who’s engaged in any way. And yeah. I even say this from a bit of a distance. UTM is work for me. But is one of the programs that I brag about when I don’t need to be bragging. We’re proud that we’re able to do this. And we hope that some of the exposure that it gets from things like podcasts, from some of the academic papers that have been written about it and presented, that we can inspire other campuses to pursue similar models. There are nice variations across Canada in how this is delivered and if we can inspire more campuses, colleges and university campuses that aren’t doing it to pick this up as an option, wow, what a fantastic additional outcome.
Peter Reynolds: Absolutely.
Deb Walsh: That’s very true. And I want to add too that our UTM volunteers, not exclusively, but are great ambassadors for Community Living Mississauga in all our different supports. Many of the people who graduate from UTM will go on to be community professionals, community leaders, and they are aware of the supports and services that we have. And they’re advocates for inclusion. And that’s what we want. We want to live in a truly inclusive community that’s inclusive of everything that makes us different.
Peter Reynolds: Absolutely. And that’s a great call to action, Mark, you know, for other university campuses out there to hopefully be able to use this as a model for their own programs.
I’d love to end by asking the two of you, if you’re speaking directly to viewers, someone’s watching this now, and there are so many great causes out there. You know? So many organizations. Limited time, you know, both for individuals but also for students, why this program? Why Community Living Mississauga?
Deb, maybe I’ll start with you.
Deb Walsh: That is a really good question, Peter. The reason I say that’s a good question is because what I hear from our volunteers is that whether they have enjoyed volunteering or not enjoyed volunteering – most of the time it’s enjoyed – they say that it is the most life-changing thing they have ever done. So that is what I would say to people who are listening. This will be an incredible life experience. You will learn more about yourself and you will learn more about inclusivity, and you will learn more about yourself and your fellow man. It’s just an incredible experience. I wish I had known about it when I was younger.
Peter Reynolds: Mark?
Mark Overton: Love that. Absolutely agree. I love that it’s kind of this full-circle learning experience. Some volunteer opportunities don’t offer this level of kind of engagement where everybody’s learning from everybody. And the ultimate focus I think for everyone involved is helping each other understand and experience a good life. So I think this is the kind of opportunity that really matches up with university students well, and that sets them or keeps them moving down the right path to understanding that they can make big change through these kinds of actions.
So I love it. I know that my colleagues on campus love it. But especially our students on campus love it. And if you could see a group – I wish I could capture and send just some images of these groups whenever they’re together and they’re playing cards or working out together or sitting in on a class to kind of experience what it’s like. You can tell it is a meaningful – and you can see the opportunity for it to be a life-changing experience.
Deb Walsh: You can see the joy in their face, right, Mark?
Mark Overton: Yeah.
Deb Walsh: Yeah. And pictures speak so much louder than words. I wish we had some here with us.
Peter Reynolds: Mark, for those people on campus who are maybe just hearing about this for the first time, how can they find out more information?
Mark Overton: Ah. Glad you asked. So our students, our Community on Campus does outreach and I also welcome inquiries. So we actually provide them with an office space on campus so that their full-time staff member can be comfortable while here. Students and participants have a gathering place so they can simply go visit the office in the Maanjiwe nendamowinan academic building where there’s an office. They can visit the Community on Campus website through UTM.
And we also have tables set up at things like volunteer recruitment days or on-campus experience days. So there are lots of ways. And then I think the other one is just people see other groups of students and participants having fun and say what’s going on there? And we’ve got a lot of folks who are happy to tell them what the opportunity is.
Deb Walsh: Perfect.
Peter Reynolds: And Deb, how about for those people interested in volunteer opportunities at Community Living Mississauga?
Deb Walsh: So, both for Community on Campus if they’re, you know, if they’ve missed all that, and for other volunteer opportunities they can go to our website. It’s www.clmiss.ca and go under volunteer opportunities. And we welcome any and all applicants.
Peter Reynolds: I just wanted to thank both of you so much for providing your time and expertise on this topic. It’s been fantastic.
Deb Walsh: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Mark Overton: Agree.
Deb Walsh: Thank you, Mark. Nice to see you. Hope I’ll see you on camera. OK.
Mark Overton: Good to see you too, Deb. Thanks, Peter.
Deb Walsh: Thank you, Peter.
Peter Reynolds: And thank you to our audience. We really value your support. And whether you’re listening to this on your favourite podcast app or watching it on YouTube we’d love to hear from you. Please be sure to subscribe and leave a comment because your questions is what drives the content for this podcast.
I’m your host Peter Reynolds. You’ve been listening to Community Living Out Loud. And until next time, stay loud.