Danika is one of Homes First’s most energetic volunteers. Every Wednesday she brightens up the lives of our residents who take part in her weekly art workshop: walk into the dining room at our Scarborough Shelter and you will see the drawings and paintings that line the walls, inspired by the gregarious 36 year old. Danika’s smile can light up a room; her laughter is contagious. She’s always been an artist, getting all A’s in art class during her formative years. If you were to meet her now, you wouldn’t know that a year and a half ago life painted a very different picture.
When she had children at a young age, Danika’s love affair with art was put on hold. “I would always look at paintings, I would watch this painting show…and be like that’s cool, I wish I could do that!” she says. Fleeing an abusive relationship she ended up at Savards, our women’s shelter. Everything changed when she joined the art program, where the spark was reignited. Since then, Danika hasn’t put down the paintbrush.
Being reminded of her passion was the key to Danika’s recovery. When she moved out of Savards into an apartment, volunteering for Homes First seemed like the next logical step in her new life. Despite hard times, Danika has always given back. She says she chooses opportunities that feel gratifying. She used to volunteer with the food bank and Second Harvest, as well as at back to school events for her kids. As for an ongoing commitment, “Not until I came [to Scarborough].
Danika says she grew up a lot in the year that she lived at Savards, which is why she chose to volunteer with us. She says though she couldn’t lean on her own family for support, the other women and staff played that role in her life. “I can’t forget where I came from…if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be where I am in this current time in my life. There was no way I couldn’t give back to Homes First.”
Her contributions extend beyond our expectations. Danika loves taking groups of residents for day trips to the Art Gallery of Ontario, and she also organizes trips to the Ontario Science Centre and the ROM. She brings residents to our community events, assists at karaoke, and helps residents voice their concerns to staff. “I am like Switzerland, I am neutral”, she jokes. She is a great advocate for our organization. It’s clear that Danika cares a lot about other people, and it comes as no surprise that she wants to start school in September for social work.
Danika says her experience as a volunteer has made her feel whole and like a better person. She says it’s given her a sense of purpose of where she wants to be in life now. She wants to help others feel some form of gratification, to help in any way that she can to ensure that our residents are happy for the couple of hours a week she spends with them. For Danika, the art program is much more than just a commitment, it’s her calling. “Every Wednesday I look forward to this. This is my thing. I HAVE to come. I’ll even come back another day because we are not done. They just look at me and they’re like ‘You don’t want to go home?’…I [volunteer from] 2-4 and I’m sometimes here till 8… I don’t care. I do care, but I don’t, you know? It’s humbling.”
As for why everyone should volunteer, just listen to the plea of a woman who knows how life changing the experience can be: “Please volunteer, something you like is there, and someone is going to say thank you and you don’t understand how good it feels. It just feels good.”
For as long as we humans have been able to communicate, we’ve told stories. Through storytelling we’ve been able to share experiences, to build connections with each other, to create community, and to heal.
Every week, a group of Homes First clients gathers to participate in the Writing for Recovery program, a series of writing and storytelling workshops that focus on the issue of harm reduction. And there to help facilitate and lead the process, you’ll find volunteer Gideon.
Gideon began volunteering with Homes First’s Community Development Department five months ago, helping to administer the Writing for Recovery program where residents from Strachan House and Savards use writing and storytelling as a means of building community and as part of the process of recovery.
In the short time he’s been leading the meetings, Gideon has developed a respectful relationship with the peers, and he’s been instrumental in helping to foster an environment where residents can be open and honest about their experiences.
The 25-year-old Toronto native is finishing a master’s degree in political science at York University, investigating neo-liberalism and the decline of social services. He plans to ultimately get his doctorate at York. Gideon’s academic studies are what led him to seek out ways to help out at the ground level.
“I wanted to get involved with an organization that was committed to the value of housing as a social right,” Gideon says. “I thought that Homes First embodies that and I wanted to get involved with it any way I could.”
The Writing for Recovery program features four weekly workshops every month. Two of them are writing workshops, one led by a volunteer writer from the community and one led by a worker at CAMH’s Queen West facility who provides information on harm reduction.
Two peer leaders host the other two workshops where they incorporate the harm reduction skills gained and help lead their fellow peers in the process. The stories they’re writing will eventually be published in an anthology of the peers’ experiences of harm reduction.
Gideon has witnessed the peers and peer leaders in the program developing a sense of empowerment through the workshops.
“You can tell that they have a sense of ownership over the process, and a sense of responsibility and a desire to learn about harm reduction,” he says. “They definitely seem committed and really engaged in that process.”
As for Gideon, he’s also gained a lot from being involved with the program.
“It’s really a great experience to get to interact and become involved with people who have great ideas and great spirits,” he says, “and to feel like you’re participating in something with them on an equal level towards a common goal.”
Gideon’s story is one that we see in many of our volunteers: a little learning, a lot of caring, and a big desire to help make a difference.
Written by Jim Kelly – Homes First Volunteer Blogger
Every Thursday and Friday, Ivan (or as Homes First staff affectionately call him, Pops) volunteers as a “helper” at our Scarborough Shelter. Twice a week Pops hops on transit from his new apartment in Kensington Market to make the hour-long trek to his former home.
Pops has been transient for several years. Three years ago he found himself at our Scarborough Shelter. From there, he says he started to make plans in regards to the direction he wanted his life to head in.
With the help of staff, Pops received guidance and housing support, eventually securing a room at Strachan House. Staff regularly checked in with Ivan to see how he was adapting to his new living situation, and when a bachelor apartment at Bellevue House opened up, Pops jumped at the chance to move yet again. “Now I feel very comfortable, and I hope for my life to get a little bit better,” he says.
Pops has always been active in the community- he used to serve meals at Sherbourne and Dundas and hand out survival kits as a Street Health volunteer- but he became a regular Homes First contributor when he first moved into the Shelter. “Homes First has given me an opportunity to find myself and they have also supported me in many ways that I appreciate. I felt like I needed to give back something because they have helped me and they have helped a lot of people.”
At our Scarborough Shelter, Pops wears many hats. He helps in the kitchen; unloads trucks; stocks the stockroom; cleans up the yard and common areas, taking on any task that is thrown his way. He says volunteering has improved his self-confidence and given him a more positive outlook on life. The impact is immeasurable: “I feel worthy.”
Pops is eager to share the difference volunteering has made in his life. ”It’s a personal choice, but I wish more people could give a little more time volunteering, and give a little bit more of themselves.”
To all our amazing volunteers- thank you for giving a little bit of yourselves to our cause!
Catherine moved into her downtown neighbourhood about a year-and-a-half ago. Although she’d been involved with volunteer work for the past 15 years, her latest commitment had recently come to an end and she was looking for another opportunity that would not only help people, but also help her get to know her new area.
Once she was living in the downtown core, Catherine was confronted with the harsh realities that the homeless face on a daily basis. She knew that she wanted to address the issue and spend more time volunteering in the housing sector, although at the time she wasn’t quite sure what that meant or what openings might be available. When she saw that Homes First was looking for volunteers, she assumed it would be a good fit.
She was right – Catherine has been a right-hand woman for Homes First for almost a year, providing administrative help in the finance and volunteer departments, running the clothing donation room and assisting with various community events and fundraisers.
“Volunteering in general is a good way to expand your horizons and learn about a part of life that you don't normally run into in your particular neighbourhood or place of work or type of work,” she says.
Catherine’s professional background is in the healthcare sector, particularly in the area of research. She retired a few years ago, and although she says that the tasks that she takes on at Homes First aren’t particularly demanding, she’s happy to devote her time and energy to learn more about various housing issues and meet people outside of her normal social circle.
She calls Homes First a very pleasant place to work, and says that the people that she’s worked with at the organization – clients and employees alike – are not only friendly, but also appreciative of what other people do to pitch in and help out.
She remembers working in the clothing depot and asking a client what she could help find. The client replied, “Well, the only clothes that I have are the ones that I'm wearing.” That was a particularly memorable moment for Catherine, who had never before met anyone in that situation. No doubt that she will have many other memorable moments in the months to come, and moments like that remind volunteers why they’re so sorely needed.
“[Volunteering] takes you out of your own sphere and gives you an easy opportunity to learn about other issues and other ways of living and other people and how other people deal with things,” Catherine says. “I always find that I get more than I give.”
Written by Kimberly Greene – Homes First Volunteer Blogger
For thirty years, James struggled with manic depression and alcoholism. He’d take odd jobs to make ends meet, but when they became scarce he’d lose his housing and hit the hostels. Eventually, James succumbed to battle fatigue and, unable to fight anymore, ended up on the streets.
Fast forward to today: James now has a warm home and is an active member in his community. He volunteers twice a week at local charities doing maintenance work. One year ago, James was helped off the street by an outreach initiative and referred to us here at Homes First. He has had a permanent home ever since.
With a roof over his head, James is able to focus on tackling his other issues again. Having just celebrated his sixtieth birthday last month, James can attest that it’s never too late to start over. He now receives treatment for his manic depression and has support for his substance use. He meets weekly with two psychiatrists and a social worker.
Having lived rough for so long has taken its toll. James can no longer work and receives financial help from the Ontario Disability Support Program. Yet as he enters his senior years, he isn’t ready to sit idle.
“If I can’t go work for cash, I can pay back with volunteer work,” he says. He decided to join our Hearts and Hands Volunteer Program, an integrated two-way initiative connecting our residents with volunteer opportunities and matching community members with opportunities at Homes First.
James met with Sharon, a volunteer herself who helps our residents find volunteer opportunities. “She helped me find the type of work I was looking for. My line is maintenance, so I do that better.”
With Hearts and Hands, James was able to find volunteer positions with the Yonge Street Mission and Habitat for Humanity. While James had to retire early, volunteering has given him a renewed sense of purpose and pride.
Twice a week, you can find the Etobicoke Quilter’s Guild sorting supplies and sewing away at their local community centre. The group makes over 140 unique comfort quilts each year, which they then donate to people of all ages in shelters and hospices across Toronto.
Homes First is fortunate to be a recipient of the donated quilts, a gift our residents are grateful to receive as they settle into their new home. The comfort quilts are aptly named – the care and kindness put into their creation is apparent. With few belongings to their name, our residents are often overwhelmed by not only owning such a beautiful quilt, but also by the compassion put into making it.
The comfort quilts work their magic in another way: on the quilter’s themselves. While the Guild is made up of people from all walks of life, many are retirees. “Often when people retire, they feel a loss of purpose,” shares Comfort Quilt program coordinator Joan. “Many feel like they’re not contributing anymore. But when they make a quilt, they know they’ve made a difference in the life of another person.” For these quilters, it is much more than a pastime-it’s a labour of love.
The Quilter’s Guild isn’t just donating comforters: they give our residents a sense of comfort and security. On behalf of Homes First and all our residents who have received a comfort quilt, we thank you!
When Cinthya Narvaez came to Canada 14 years ago, she barely spoke English. Thanks to the support of family and friends, Cinthya overcame the barriers of adjusting to life in a foreign country and learning a new language. Grateful to everyone who helped further her education, Cinthya now gives her time to educate and help others.
As a health promoter for adults and seniors at a Community Health Centre, Cinthya is naturally caring. As a volunteer for Homes First, she uses her knowledge and skills as a certified Seniors’ Fitness Instructor to lead exercise classes for our tenants.
Every Tuesday, Cinthya rolls out the mats at Meegwetch Place for a sixty minute seniors exercise class. Residents flock to the community room to join in an energetic afternoon of stretching. “It’s given me an increased sense of community and satisfaction with the work that I do.”
Always eager to introduce people to the benefits of exercise, Cinthya is happy to share her passion with us and proud to be helping those who need it most.
When Cathy Ward saw the name ‘Homes First’ along with a call for volunteer wool sorters, she couldn’t resist. A keen knitter as well as a former board member with a soft spot for our organization, Cathy eagerly responded to the ask. What Cathy didn’t expect was to stumble upon a goldmine; bags and bags of high end quality wool, a knitter’s dream collection.
She soon recruited three other passionate volunteers from the knitting community- Julia Bryant, Cheryl Galbraith and Mary Pat MacDonald. Together, they spent over 200 hours bagging and sorting the wool. After putting a large amount aside for our residents, Cathy had an idea: “I realized it was a fundraising opportunity to let the knitting community take advantage of the wool and raise money for Homes First”.
The group turned to the established knitting community and the funds started pouring in. In an attempt to reach out to the broader community, two more members were recruited to help run a craft table at the Cabbagetown Festival in September. After months of sorting and selling, they raised over $4,300 dollars for Homes First.
The team of avid knitters was delighted to help Homes First and supply wool to our neighbouring communities. We value the dedication of our volunteers and hope you will consider joining us! If you are interested in volunteering or running a third party fundraising event, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a member on our board of directors and previous chair of the Tenant Services Committee, Carroll has proudly devoted nearly 18 years to Homes First. She continues to volunteer while working as an Administrative Coordinator with the Strategic Real Estate Asset Management Division, Ministry of Infrastructure for the Government of Ontario.
Carroll believes that finding a home first is the best way to begin dealing with long-term complex issues, and that everyone deserves a good home. She feels those who have been on the street for a long time need lots of support to help them get and keep housing so that they can begin to work on their personal goals.
As chair of the Tenant Services Committee, Carroll oversaw the development of a visiting healthcare professionals program where tenants now have access to a family doctor, and forged a partnership between Homes First Society and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. These programs have enabled Homes First to provide more effective support for our existing residents as well as providing higher level of support for people who have never been successfully housed.
Carroll encourages donors to become actively involved with Homes First. By volunteering your time, you can witness the impact of your donations. For Carroll, it is a moving experience that has also shown her what it takes to house those who have had the most trouble getting and keeping housing. We are grateful to her and our many volunteers who have dedicated their time to Homes First.
“When you have a home, many things become possible. And I’ve seen that happen. Homes first. Because even hope needs a home.”