Category: Community Mental Health Advocacy

Respect Your Volunteers

By Venerable Sakya M. Longyen

They’re here to see you.
They’ve dressed their best.
They put on their smiles.
They’re here to do service.
They don’t get paid.
They’re volunteers.
You should return their favours.
Dress your best!
Clean your best!
Be your best!

How I Become A VOKRA Cat Care Volunteer

This is a story about how I went from not wanting to volunteer to becoming a Cat Care Volunteer with VOKRA.

VOKRA stands for the Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association. It is a non-profit organisation established in 2000. It is 100% volunteer-driven and has no paid staff. It is open seven days a week and primarily operates in Vancouver and Burnaby.
1. The first thing I’d like to share with you is about Canadian Mental Health Association’s Ready, Set, and Go Volunteer preparation course
How is this course relevant to my volunteering? To be honest, I wouldn’t have become a volunteer if I had not taken this course. To say the very least,

  • There are great resources to learn and share, such as Go Volunteer, Career Cruising, resume writing techniques, and interviewing skills.
  • What’s more, there is constant and willing guidance and support from our facilitators and personal coaches.
  • And for me, I heard about VOKRA during a brainstorming session.

But then again to be honest, about mid-term and towards the end of my course, I started to have cold feet about volunteering. I felt that the facilitators were pressuring me too hard to go forward and get results. The more the pressure exerted, the more I was overwhelmed, and the more I felt discouraged. I told the facilitators how I felt, and I promised that I would at least try my best to complete the course. During the following session, the facilitators had changed their approach because of my feedback. I was proud to complete the course eventually.
2. What then got me to volunteer with VOKRA
After completing the course, I was struck by a severe episode of agoraphobia. I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone; didn’t want to go out of my suite; didn’t even want to answer the telephone. What then jump-started me to apply for a volunteer job? There was a sequence of related events.

  • First, it just so happened that on the last day of my course, I exchanged contact information with someone who had had experience dealing with VOKRA, and she helped me greatly by sending me all the relevant information about VOKRA.
  • Next, I uploaded my Certificate of Recognition on Facebook and WordPress, and friends congratulated me on my success.
  • As well, I uploaded images I created about the positive effects of volunteering on mental health, and friends as far as England, congratulated me, but I felt like a hypocrite for not following through with what I had promoted.
  • Also, I had been lying to my friends and neighbours that I was already volunteering with VOKRA in order to conceal my agoraphobic condition.
  • I even lied to my mental health nurse too, but she asked me to take pictures of the kittens to share with her next time we met. “We all love kittens!” she said. And I was like, “What…?”

3. Next, I’d like to talk about taking my first step forward
It was not until mid December before I finally picked up enough energy to check on VOKRA’s website. If I hadn’t done that, everything would have stayed just the way it was. But as soon as I had seen their website, I knew I had gone past the point of no return.

  • There was something magical about VOKRA’s attractive website, and their make-you-fall-in-love-with-the-kittens gallery. Slowly, I started looking more closely at the volunteer job categories. Then finally, my attention was drawn to their online application.
  • The application was the most user-friendly and simple.
    • No need for criminal check
    • I just need to answer a few easy questions
    • One of which was to agree to a waiver of indemnity and release – About this legal document, when I was doing my course, one of the participants was very concerned about whether he would be indemnified if he suffered any damage to properties, injury, or even death from volunteering. This waiver clearly releases VOKRA from any such liabilities. It also suggests that it would be wise for all applicants to talk to their doctors about getting their tetanus shots up-to-date for self protection because cats do scratch. I talked to my doctor and he told me my tetanus shot was current. He asked me why I wanted a booster. I told him about the waiver, and we both laughed. My doctor is a lawyer too.
    • The next thing about the application was to choose my preferred job type to suit my skill levels, from categories such as drivers, medical, adoption, graphic design, photographers, trapping, administration, special events, and cat care. I selected Cat Care.
    • And finally I need to commit to volunteer for at least six months.

During the application, I had some misconceptions about gender equality relating to the duties of Cat Care Volunteers, because they include many menial chores. I thought to myself, if I found out later that only men volunteers were cleaning the kennels and emptying the garbage, and the women were petting and playing with the cats and kittens, then I would be really mad.
4. Next thing I’d like to share is the telephone interview and how it was related to our course materials
As I had specified on my application that I didn’t want any phone calls or voice mails because of my condition at the time, the recruiting coordinator from VOKRA emailed me, and said that we needed to conduct a telephone interview in order to complete the application process. So I agreed. Remember? I’ve gone past the point of no return.

  • First question they asked was why I wanted to volunteer with VOKRA – the night before the scheduled interview, I reviewed our course materials on interviewing skills and techniques, and the mission statement of VOKRA. I answered the hardest question easily by listing three reasons. All I said was: Oh, because VOKRA is 100% volunteer-driven and it has no paid staff! (I cheated, right? I mean, how would I ever know?) And also I strongly agreed 100% with their mission statement! (See, I did it again! I haven’t even started working with them.) Plus of course, I love cats. After that, the phone interview turned into some sort of friendly chat. The questions got easier and easier as we proceeded.
  • With questions such as, have you any volunteering experience? “Yes. Blah, blah, blah… It’s also a non-profit organisation, and that’s also one of the reasons why I’ve chosen VOKRA.” Now, I could tell that the interviewer was quite pleased.
  • Have you any experience working with cats? “Yes, I used to take care of three cats for an old lady and I used to have two cats that came to me through my open windows.” Really?
  • Do you own any cats? “No, my residential policy does not allow pets.”
  • Next thing was to confirm that I have chosen Cat Care,
  • Picked and confirmed my shift, and finally
  • Agreed to come for orientation training at a future time and date.

The telephone interview lasted about 20 minutes.

5. Next topic is about my orientation training with VOKRA

  • The one-and-one-half hours orientation training at their operations centre included a grand tour of the place and demonstrations of the various duties of a Cat Care Volunteer. There were three other trainees besides me.
  • The centre operates three shifts, each consists of any two hours within a four-hour window. Morning and evening shifts cat care duties include feeding, cleaning and refilling litter boxes, and replacing soiled bedding.
  • Cat care in the afternoon is called operations support and maintenance, and my duties are mainly to give support to the other two shifts.

6. Next about the paperwork that signed, sealed, and delivered the deal

  • Even after training, I have the option to decide when to start my first shift by sending a confirmation email.
  • What if I can’t make a shift – there are strict cancellation protocols to follow because the livelihood of the cats and kittens depends on us. They include:
    • Emailing the schedule manager so she can change the schedule, and
    • Emailing the on call group of volunteers and finding a replacement.
  • The paperwork also includes signing and returning the waiver of indemnity and release.

7. And now I’ll say something about my first shift
It was an absolutely wonderful experience.

  • Volunteers at the centre were exceptionally friendly, patient, helpful, and supportive.
  • Kittens were playful and adorable, and the cats handsome looking – though feral ones can be also unpredictable.
  • My duties during the operations support shift will include:
    • Cleaning and disinfecting kennels, litter boxes, carriers, and scratching posts;
    • Stocking shelves with towels, fleeces, sheets, beds, litter boxes and scoops, feeding bowls, carriers, and toys;
    • Filling feeding buses and litter bins;
    • Washing dishes, laundry, and floors; and time permitting,
    • Petting and playing with cats and kittens.

8. Finally I’ll touch on fostering and adoption

  • Little Addy has one of his hind quarters amputated, and urgently needs a loving parent to foster or adopt him.
  • Greta is a tiny affectionate kitten, very sweet and adorable. She blinked slowly at me three times. She can do that on demand too. For a moment, I was like, “ Boy! Am I looking at a woman or what?” Greta had just stolen my heart. At only four-months old, she’d already had a litter. How disheartening! Can you imagine a kitten having a litter at four-months old? Now she’s waiting to be spayed and examined by the vet. After that she’s ready to be fostered or adopted.
  • As much as I would like to, I am not allowed to foster any cats or kittens because of my residential policy, but any one of you may apply online to foster or adopt a cat or kitten if you’re interested, even if you’re not ready to volunteer yet.

9. Conclusion
In conclusion, I’d like to end this talk by listing five positive psychological effects of volunteering on restoring mental health:

  • Firstly, volunteering restores our sense of self worth and confidence;
  • Secondly, the joy in helping others is empowering – even if we are to do menial chores while volunteering, there is added value that is quite different from doing the same things for ourselves;
  • Thirdly, positive reinforcement from volunteering helps reduce mental illness self stigma – I was able to overcome my agoraphobia;
  • Fourthly, volunteering lets us interact with other people and helps reduce social awkwardness; and finally,
  • Having a fixed schedule gives us something to look forward to, plus it has a stabilising effect on our mental state.

In hindsight, taking the first step was the hardest, but I cannot stress enough that it is the one sure way to clear up the dark clouds that have been hanging over my head for the past few months, and get me the volunteer job with VOKRA successfully. But the main thing to remember is, if you ever run into any difficulties, always talk to your coaches, for they are always there to help.

I have VOKRA’s contact information here in case anyone is interested in volunteering, fostering, or adoption.

Thank you all very much for listening!
10. Contact VOKRA
Website: Phone: 604-731-2913





Spontaneous gratitude is a reflective sense of thankfulness, a frame of reference for work, relationships, and daily life in general. This all-encompassing approach to life can make you happier and healthier. It is a lens through which we see the world, which is different from just saying thank you to someone.

When something bad happens, try to be appreciative that things aren’t worse. It takes practice to connect with those feelings under duress. Jot down three things you’re looking forward to each morning or three things you’re thankful for each night. When so many in the world have no water, be thankful that you can take hot showers in the morning. Watching the sun create an interesting shadow, for instance — there’s joy in that, even if it’s only for a second. Volunteering to help someone less fortunate changes your perspective. It shifts your focus onto other people and away from your own problems, and it can keep you in a space of gratitude. If you want to do something to add meaning to your life and reward yourself with happiness and a renewed feeling of vigour, become a volunteer. Volunteering is reward in itself.

Being thankful can also strengthen your relationships with the people in your life. Simply appreciating people is something we don’t do enough of, and it makes all the difference. This positive attitude shift helps people overcome health issues, such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and diminish the effect of stress.

So rethink your world view. Pause to take stock of what you’re thankful for and start appreciating the little things in life. You will be thankful that just by doing so, you will also make significant connections with your family and community, success in work, and a happier and more fulfilled life.

I’m grateful to see a total stranger put a smile on her already beautiful face when her friend she’s been waiting for finally showed up.

I’m grateful to hear an innocent little boy sing a Christmas carol as he licked on his snowman candy and then shared the candy with his mom. And she smiled too.

I’m grateful that I have the leisure to notice little things like these, which unfailingly can put a smile on my face.

I’m grateful to share my seat with two little school kids with the most bizarre braided hair on my way to the dentist. And their teacher also said thank you for sharing my seat.

I’m grateful to share my seat with a young woman who had fallen asleep so peacefully beside me. And when I offered her my seat, a radiant smile shone upon her face before she went back to sleep.

It is our Godliness that makes us see the beauty of the people around us. And when it connects us with a smile or two, we realise that all along God has always been with us.

Volunteering and Its Health Benefits

Volunteering and Its Health Benefits
By Akira Tomiyama
Dharma Net of Indra
Monday, 14 November 2016

Good Afternoon Everyone! I’m very glad to be here. Thank you all for having me. It’s an honour.
1. Make the connection

Last November, as I sat in a room with a group of strangers just like you’re doing now, I was anxious and unsure if I could ever actually go through with it. A year has gone by during which I volunteered with different groups. I had great lessons to learn but also found great fulfilment. Today, I am very happy to share with you some of my lessons, experiences, and the health benefits of volunteering.

2. What I have learnt from the RSGV course

If I were to categorise by nature the things I have learnt from this course, they would fall under four categories.

a. Personal aspects: Knowing myself, and overcoming fear with confidence. Confidence comes with a realisation of your worthiness and love. It does not come with wearing name brands or putting on make-up. Volunteering is a great way to let us do just that.

b. Technical aspects: There are great interviewing techniques and online job search resources to learn. For example, I realise that each interview is a learning experience in itself rather than the result of that interview being a positive or negative experience.

c. Human aspects: Building trust, connections, community awareness. To volunteer is to serve our community. We become community-oriented individuals, weaving resilient and strong community connections and support networks.

d. Social skills: Setting boundaries, communications skills, work ethics & etiquette.

3. Regular paid job and volunteering: Similarities and differences

Ask the class for examples of similarities and differences. I’d like everyone to think of a difference and a similarity between a paid job and volunteering. You may give a textbook answer but your own creative answer is also welcome. Any volunteer? 

Share my own examples.

Similarities between a Paid Job and Volunteering: Duties & responsibilities; Commitment; Punctuality; Interviews & resume; Work ethics & etiquettes; References & criminal checks.

Differences in a Paid Job: Necessity/money; Bosses, hiring & firing; More pressure; Less accommodating schedule; Stricter dress code; Competition among co-workers.

Differences in Volunteering: Passion/fun/fulfilment; No bosses, workers collaborate, no hiring & firing; Less pressure; More accommodating schedule; More relaxed dress code; Workers collaborate and cooperate.

In an ideal volunteer setting, we do not work for somebody, there are no bosses, and we all work together to create something to be proud of in an environment where everybody cares for everybody else.

4. Volunteering mind map: Why, What, When, Who, and How

A volunteering mind map is a diagram set on paper of your own mental picture of Why, What, When, Who, and How you plan to volunteer. It is a decision-making tool for some of us who are indecisive and anxious, a blueprint of our own resources at this present moment. Your volunteering mind map is your plan drawn up on paper to help you achieve your volunteering objectives. We map out on a piece of cardboard the answers to the above questions. The mind map then serves as a constant reminder of our present state of mind in relation to the relevant questions concerning volunteering. You can set it aside and do nothing, pin it on the wall and look at it every time you wake up in the morning. If you are not happy with it, you can even throw it away. Or you can re-evaluate your plan and do another one when you are more ready. There is absolutely no pressure on you whether or when to act accordingly.

a. Why: Self-motivation – Ask yourself why you want to volunteer. What is volunteering? Volunteering is not just working for free. Volunteering is living your dream. Volunteering is putting your passion to action. Volunteering is reaching out to the real world and getting yourselves involved in real life events. Volunteers are people from a variety of backgrounds who are interested in making a difference in the community. Quit looking at your phones and get outside. Get ready, set, go and be a part of something real. Do you want to stay home and look at computer or television images of people and things that are not even there? Or maybe all you want is to achieve a certain balance in your life through volunteering. If you want,  you can do all of them. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Whatever your reasons, writing down why you want to volunteer will motivate you. Writing literally brings emotional and physical healing. Self-motivation is our power of intent – we use this power to silently will something into being. Just another fancy way to say if you want something bad enough, you will make it happen.

b. What: Do it with passion or not at all – that’s what sets volunteering apart from a paid job. So what are my passions? What am I passionate about? What is my dream? And what are my skills? You need to do some soul-searching here. Identifying your true passion and following it will help you choose the right type of volunteer work. So what exactly is this thing called passion? Passion is not a job, a sport, or even a hobby. It is an intense emotion, a compelling enthusiasm, the full force of your attention that you give to something that is right in front of you. Passion is not a plan, it’s a feeling, and feelings change. So then what is my passion? Find something meaningful that you love to focus on doing, something that makes you feel special – that’s your passion. Years ago, a nearby restaurant made me feel special. I started volunteering there washing dishes just by talking to the owner. The owner, employees, and volunteers shared meals together every night after closing. Another good way to find out your passion is to visit your neighbourhood house or community centre and join some programs. Take your time to find out what really makes you feel special. Go out, get involved, and equip yourselves with the skills and resources fit for a fulfilling volunteer job. Often, we lack motivation because we lack resources. But there are organisations in Vancouver such as the Open Door Group from which you can apply for a bursary and participate in various training programs. Since 1976, Open Door Group has been providing a full range of client-centered services to support individuals to achieve employment or community attachment.

c. When: When should I start looking for volunteer work? Set a time line for yourself or not. You either do something or you don’t. Either is fine. Again, there is no pressure on you. I can’t stress this enough because when I was taking the course, I felt pressured by the facilitators to act and the result was, I got cold feet, the exact opposite of what they hoped to achieve. Set your own pace. You decide when to start and for how long you intend to work with a particular organisation. That said, experience tells me that if you start now, there is an upward spiral of well-being. Making even a bit of progress on our goals fuels us. The effort feels good because we have exercised self-regulation.

d. Who: Who do I want to volunteer with? Who are your target volunteer organisations? Why them? Check out their vision and mission statements online or visit them to find out what they do. If you agree with their vision and mission, then give yourself a chance to volunteer with them. Always remember that you are in charge.

e. How: How am I going to approach my target organisation for an interview? There are two approaches: online or direct visit. At your familiar neighbourhood house, library, or community centre, there are usually volunteer programs that you can apply directly in person. This is generally a good way to start. Meet the people and get involved. When you are confident and ready, you may go online and explore other opportunities. Good problem solving means you identify and tackle your obstacles head on. Tell yourself not to be overwhelmed by them. Often, lack of ID, housing, food, money, education, work experience, computer skills, childcare, clothing, transportation, and references are obstacles in job search. This may sound formidable but it’s nothing compared to the challenges we have to face living with mental illness. That said, if you see something worth having, go after it.

5. My work as an operation support staff with VOKRA

My first volunteering experience was with VOKRA, the Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association, from January to June 2016. As an operation support staff, my work included cleaning and disinfecting kennels and carriers, laundry, dish washing, and stocking supplies. Not very exciting by any standards. When I applied, I had agreed to commit myself for at least six months. But life is full of unexpected events. I passed out lifting weights at the gym and fractured my right thumb. It took a long time to heal. As I couldn’t lift heavy objects, I had to take leave of absence from VOKRA for a month. Then the summer session of my Permaculture Design Certificate course started and it conflicted with my volunteering schedule. Again, I followed protocols and took leave because completing my PDC course was more important. Despite the co-founder’s and other co-workers’ appreciation of my work, I received an email in June from their scheduling manager telling me that my absence had been noted and they had to take me off their schedule because of my lack of commitment. What do you think of that? There are good lessons to learn here. Firstly, just as with any paid job, commitment is valued too in volunteering. Another hard lesson I’ve learnt was not to override my true self in order to be more likeable and acceptable to others. In other words, I’ve learnt to accept being unacceptable to others. I’ve learnt to embrace the absolute worst: being disliked. This doesn’t mean learning to be a smartass, but it does mean learning to acknowledge weakness, honour my needs and intent, and sow the seeds of self-worth and love. And so even though the parting email has given me the opportunity to return to work when I’m more committed, I’ve learnt to move on for the better. Here’s the thing. If you are not sure about whether you’ve chosen the right volunteering job, commit initially and see how and where that works. Life’s too short to not give it a go on people and things that make us happy. If this commitment couldn’t sustain after a while (say, after 6 months), then it’s not a poor decision to call it a day and move on. At least you’ve tried and it takes so many tries to get one right in life at times, but we’re guaranteed to have nothing if we don’t even try. Sometimes ruthless pragmatism will get us ahead.

6. My work as a community gardener with Gordon Neighbourhood House

Since April this year, I have been a volunteer gardener with Gordon Neighbourhood House’s Community Organic Herb Gardening team. My transition from VOKRA operation support to organic gardening with Gordon Neighbourhood House was a life-enhancing experience. Under the sponsorship of the West End Neighbourhood Food Network, our gardening team plant, grow, harvest, and cook vegetables and herbs to share with the community in the West End, especially people with low income and in need of nutritious food. Here, I learn how to plan, harvest, prepare, and cook lunch for a group of people using the produce I grow from the community herb gardens. In September, I also acted as Gordon Neighbourhood House’s ambassador at the West End Food Festival to promote our work and food resilience and food justice philosophy to the public. As the festival was a North American Conference, I had the chance to speak with many US tourists and folks from other provinces. I’ve also been invited to attend in late November, as Gordon Neighbourhood House volunteer, the 2016 annual Vancouver Urban Farming Forum to discuss urban farming proposals on theme areas such as the historical roots and the future of urban farming in Metro Vancouver. I’m very happy working with this team because I can contribute more to the community and also be able to build connections among neighbours. Growing food off the land, I have learnt to be more environmentally conscious and I am feeling more grounded with our Earth, with nature, and with the present moment. I have also learnt how to apply permaculture ethics and principles in working with soil, plants, and people.

7. List of 6 health benefits of volunteering

In conclusion, I’d like to end this talk by listing several health benefits of volunteering:

Firstly, volunteering enhances our worthiness and love. We follow our true passion as a result of self-knowledge and self-acceptance. Worthiness and love do not come from external achievements or sources outside of ourselves. Because I know I’m worthy and I love myself, I am able to extend that worthiness and love in helping others. Through volunteering, we weave a community bigger and stronger than ourselves and become an integral part of it;

Secondly, the joy of helping others is empowering – people who routinely help others often experience a “helper’s high” – a euphoric rush that releases endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers;

Thirdly, positive reinforcement from volunteering promotes mental wellness – According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, volunteering has also been shown to decrease anxiety and depression, improve self-esteem and diminish the effects of stress;

Fourthly, if you want to do something to add meaning to your life and reward yourself with happiness and a renewed feeling of vigour, become a volunteer. Volunteering is reward in itself;

Fifthly, performing acts of kindness through volunteering helps boost human dignity; and

Finally, volunteering on a fixed or flexible schedule gives us something to look forward to and has a stabilising effect on our mental state.

In retrospect, taking the first step forward was the hardest, but I could not stress enough that it was the one sure way to clear up the dark clouds that had been hanging over my head for the few months prior to getting my first volunteering job with VOKRA. But the main thing to remember is, if you ever run into any difficulties, always talk to your personal coach, for they are always there to help.

Thank you very much for taking the time!