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Volunteering During a Pandemic: Supporting Individuals with Developmental Disabilities



Elizabeth Karvasarski

Reena is a non-profit agency that provides many services for individuals with developmental disabilities. Some of the services include residential (providing homes for people to live in that are always equipped with staff), day programs (individuals partake in sensory activities such as arts and crafts, exercise, or music), employment programs and outreach programs (various social enrichment programs, such as Camp Renna). In addition, Reena partakes in advocating within various levels of government to obtain more services for individuals with developmental disabilities.

As a Volunteer Coordinator at Reena, Raquel Heayn sat down virtually with Elemental Magazine to discuss how the absence of in-person volunteers, due to the current pandemic, is affecting the mental health of the individuals who are part of Reena. Graduating with a degree in Biology, Raquel had partaken in a variety of jobs throughout her working life, however; volunteering has always been a prominent and consistent part of her activities. Whether it was at her children’s school or in local sport leagues, Raquel enjoyed volunteering, and as a result, ended up pursuing a career in volunteer services and volunteer management. She went back to school and received her certificate in Non-Profit Voluntary Sector Management. Shortly after, she accepted a position at Reena to become the Volunteer Coordinator, where she applies her education, skills, and lifetime experience to her work.

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Before the pandemic, Reena offered a variety of in-person volunteer opportunities. These opportunities included, spending one-on-one social time with an individual who has developmental disabilities, visiting and helping individuals in their residences, and assisting participants and staff in the day programs or outreach programs. There were also opportunities to volunteer in the administration, including assisting with fundraisers such as “Striking for Reena” and other special events. However, in order to remain safe during this pandemic, these in-person volunteer opportunities have come to a halt.

The lack of in-person volunteering has caused individuals at Reena to miss their interactions with the volunteers and miss that physical link to the community provided by the programs at Reena. Raquel explained that it is difficult for these individuals to understand what is happening causing an increase in anxiety. Therefore, the Learning and Development department has created 5-10-minute videos that help explain the pandemic, the personal protective equipment required, the safety precautions that must be followed, and the videos reassure them that it is ok to be feeling anxious right now. Furthermore, these videos address questions that the individuals may have, including, “what happens if my friend gets diagnosed with COVID and why can’t I go out or to work?” The staff working with the individuals have been doing their best to try to fill in the gaps and offer support. As well, the staff have been running mini day programs within the residences, to try to recreate the experience of these programs, but with a smaller group that consists of residents at that location. Although the individuals cannot see their friends from other locations, Raquel explained that through Zoom or Skype they can still interact with friends. With all of the technology that is being introduced, Raquel senses that the younger individuals have been able to adapt quicker than the older individuals.

In order to continue the important aspect of individuals at Reena interacting with volunteers and being integrated into the community, all volunteer opportunities are now virtual. Raquel explained that they tried to reimagine the in-person volunteer experience onto virtual platforms so that they are still enjoyable and interactive. For events such as ‘Arts & Crafts’ a lot more planning was involved, including delivering the supplies to all the participants and volunteers, as well as changing the delivery of instructions to be more visual and verbal. The pandemic has also created a unique opportunity to create new experiences that the volunteers can bring to the individuals, such as programs like guided meditation, coffee club, music, creative writing, and touring the world. Touring the world is a program that allows individuals to select different geographical wonders and participate in virtual tours at some of the world’s most exquisite museums. Raquel enthusiastically said, “you may never have a chance to go to the Louvre in your life, but now you can attend virtually!”. Additionally, these experiences allow individuals to meet new people, whom they may not have otherwise met, which is extremely exciting. The volunteers are doing a fantastic job at creating cheerful, warm, and welcoming virtual environments. Raquel explained that the whole sense of isolation has been very hard for the individuals, but they are working on ways to minimize it and their virtual volunteer programs have been very helpful.

The feeling of isolation brought on by this pandemic has really challenged mental health for a lot of people. Volunteering can be a way to help you feel connected to your community and minimize that feeling of isolation. When asking Raquel about advice she could share for people who are looking to volunteer during this pandemic, she had very insightful guidance. Raquel suggested to research your organization of interest and make sure that their mission statement is in line with your values. It is important to know who the organization is and what they are doing. Talking to other people who have volunteered at your organization of interest is a great way to get a sense of the kind of activities and programs they run. As well, she advised to think about what you want to get out of volunteering. Are you doing it to give back, do you need it to apply for a specific program or experience, or to help give you ideas for a career? Importantly right now, during the pandemic, you need to know what safety protocols are in place at your organization of interest. Furthermore, if you want to volunteer, however; you are unsure as to where, Raquel mentioned a list of organizations that not only list the volunteer opportunities in your area, but will also assist you in trying to find the right volunteer opportunity for you. These organizations include: Spark Ontario, Volunteer Toronto, Charity Village, YMCA, Indeed, and many more.

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The pandemic has really highlighted the importance of in-person volunteering for individuals with developmental disabilities. The interactions and feeling that physical link with the community is difficult to re-create virtually, however; the staff and volunteers at Reena are doing their best to ensure the connection between the individuals and their community is strong, in order to lessen the sense of isolation. Raquel concluded the interview by mentioning how sometimes when volunteering, you end up getting more than what you are give. You get to learn about people and meet other individuals. Moreover, if you have any preconceived ideas about people with developmental disabilities, sometimes volunteering can help open our eyes to the potential that others have. Lastly, sometimes doing things that you are uncomfortable with or putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation can help you grow as a person.

Edited by Aryan Ghaffarizadeh & Emily Mastragostino