Volunteer program offers a unique experience
As a non-profit organization, The Lighthouse relies on a team of dedicated volunteers to help with client programming, prepping food and serving meals. The task of recruiting people and organizing the program falls to Volunteer Coordinator Grace Rath.
Originally from Ottawa, Rath started at The Lighthouse as a volunteer. She moved to Saskatoon after friends she met while travelling convinced her to give the prairie city a try. “I like that it’s a smaller city and I like the community feel of it,” says Rath, “It’s a pretty friendly city. I immediately met lots of people and just found a great community, it felt like home really fast.”
While studying Sociology at the U of S, Rath saw a poster on the bus advertising for volunteers. “I’d walk downtown to work every day and I’d walk past people panhandling and I didn’t have any money to give them. I didn’t know how to help, so I started volunteering at The Lighthouse,” recalls Rath.
She spent the winter helping prep and serve dinner once a week and then got a summer job in the kitchen. The best part for Rath was getting to know the clients, “You see the same people come through the serving line every evening, so they’d get to know me and I’d get to know them.”
As she neared the end of her degree, a position opened up and the Kitchen Manager encouraged her to apply for it. She’s now been the Volunteer Coordinator for a year and a half. “One thing I learned in school is how important people’s history is,” says Rath, “I learned that in Sociology and also in the history classes I took, that sometimes it can be generations of hurt that someone’s dealing with, not just their own. So it’s a pretty heavy burden to carry. It’s hard to let that go.”
The Lighthouse combats this cycle by organizing various programs to help clients socialize and heal. Rath relies on around fifty regular volunteers to help with meals and fun activities.
Monday evening is Games Night and Rath sets up a Wii in the dining room for clients to play. There are also donated board games and packs of cards. “One of the shelter clients taught me how to play Crib when I first started. That’s probably one of the most valuable skills I’ve learned here because it’s the best game and everyone loves playing it,” says Rath.
Regular volunteer Will Pulyk’s favorite night is Coffee House on Fridays. “I usually help out serving coffee and dessert and I find it’s just very satisfying and fun,” says Pulyk, who started volunteering in April. “Last Friday we had Worms and Dirt, the chocolate pudding with gummi worms, and making people smile was very satisfying,” he says.
Coffee House also recruits volunteers to provide entertainment, encouraging folk singers or bands to share their music with clients. Sometimes Rath shows movies, and during the hockey season she always screens the play-offs.
Rath estimates that she works with over a hundred volunteers throughout the year, some are regulars like Pulyk, many come with church groups and a few are students who volunteer as a class requirement.
“I have lots of different reasons why I volunteer, I guess the simplest one is I’ve lived in a few major cities, but I’ve never really felt connected to them,” explains Pulyk, “Now I live on an acreage and I still have that disconnect. I thought that this was a good way to combat that, and I think it’s important to do something positive with the free time that you have.”
Apart from the fun activities, Rath schedules volunteers in the kitchens. There are two meal programs at The Lighthouse; one feeds only people living or staying here. Kitchen Manager Jan Thiessen relies on volunteers to help her prep and serve three meals, plus a snack to around 150 clients every day.
The Cameco Community Kitchen opened last December and is run solely by Rath and her team of volunteers. Operating on Monday and Friday evenings, this program is open to anyone in the community who needs a meal.
Rath tries to schedule groups of volunteers to come in for the Community Kitchen. “Some groups do provide the food and come and cook it and that’s really great, it helps with our budget. But if there isn’t a group to provide the food or cook it, then I’ll just make it that day and have volunteers come in and serve it,” she says.
Some of the groups are from churches or community societies, and a few are corporate teams. Rath says it’s exciting to see different organizations in the city get involved, “Cameco and Bessborough employees come to volunteer. They have team days where a group of them will run a Bingo Night or work in the kitchen.”
According to Rath, the best part of her job is when volunteers approach her with their own unique ideas. Last winter, a church group wanted give the Community Kitchen clients a formal dining experience. “Normally it’s served cafeteria style, where everyone comes through and gets their own food,” says Rath, “but these ladies came in and decorated the room, they had someone playing some background music and they put down table cloths, flowers and place settings.”
The volunteers came out dressed like waiters and served the main course with a special dessert right at the table, refilling everyone’s coffee and water glasses throughout the meal. “It was just so beautiful and a special thing to do for us. The clients loved it and it was so busy that night, everyone came,” says Rath.
The program is currently looking for volunteers with an artistic background for a weekly Art Group on Saturday afternoons. “That’s another good one to sit and chat with people. Usually we just sit and color and talk. We had a volunteer who came and did a couple classes of creative writing, so that was awesome,” says Rath. She adds that anyone who wants to come in and teach a few classes in drawing, painting, crafting or drama would be welcomed, “We’re always open to whatever people want to do.”
For Pulyk, it’s the community feeling that keeps him coming back to volunteer, “Even in the short time that I’ve been here, one of my favorite parts is seeing new people that have come to The Lighthouse make friends. Now they have people to fall back on and that’s a really wonderful thing to see.”