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Volunteering Benefits Newcomers' Well-Being

Written by  NCM Mentoring Program Wednesday, 21 October 2015 22:16
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Volunteering can help newcomers adjust, build self-esteem, meet new people, help others and get local work experience.
Volunteering can help newcomers adjust, build self-esteem, meet new people, help others and get local work experience. Photo Credit: ccbarr via Flickr CC

by Maria Ikonen in Ottawa

Moving to a new country can be stressful. It means leaving familiar places, people and aspects of everyday life behind. Whether arriving in Canada with their family or alone, adjusting to a new and unfamiliar environment for many newcomers is difficult.

Volunteering and getting involved in social activities has helped many adapt, and had positive effects on their overall well-being.

Originally from Pakistan, Shahnaz Ali, 44, lived in Saudi Arabia and the U.S. before coming to Canada in 2002. Encouraged by the principal, Ali began volunteering at her daughter’s school, and then later with the YMCA and a Sunday school.

She remembers the value of volunteering during those early days in Canada.

“Newcomers can get the opportunity to socialize and meet new people and get a better understanding of Canadian culture,” says Ali, who now volunteers with The Ottawa Hospital.  

“Simply put, it feels great to give back to others through volunteerism, plus there are opportunities to develop new skills.”

Sherri Daly, manager of volunteer resources at The Ottawa Hospital, describes volunteering as an effective way to learn about social norms in Canada.

“It is vital to get out of your house when you are new to a community or job hunting. Having meaningful things to do can be a way to build self-esteem and connections,” says Daly.

Gaining valuable work experience

Having local work experience may be vital when looking for new employment. In such a situation volunteering can be beneficial, explains Annmarie Nicholson, director of volunteer services at The Royal, a mental-health research and care facility in Ottawa.

“Simply put, it feels great to give back to others through volunteerism, plus there are opportunities to develop new skills,” says Nicholson. “Work experience as well is a very practical benefit to volunteering, and having a local reference person when applying for jobs is a big benefit as well.”

Besides learning about Canadian culture and creating new resume material, being active is a chance to help others, adds Andrea Tatarski, coordinator in humane education at the Ottawa Humane Society.

“Volunteers have the opportunity to give back to the community by making positive differences for the animals in our care, as well as the people we serve through our various programs and services.”

Improving mental health

Sinthuja Krishnamoorthy works in the Newcomer Youth Program at East Metro Youth Services, an adolescent mental-health and addictions centre in Scarborough, Ontario.

Some newcomers may be interested in volunteering, but are unsure of where to start or are hesitant to get involved.

The program is geared toward engaging young refugees and those who have permanent residency in Canada in social and volunteering activities.

“Becoming lonely in a new country and being away from family can cause anxiety,” says Krishnamoorthy. “We help these newcomers discuss their issues in a safe environment.”

The biggest challenge for youth is often feeling confident in their language skills, Krishnamoorthy explains.

“They might not learn English as a second language in their home countries, or aren’t comfortable using it. This is where our daily conversations and interactive activity component comes in handy.”

Once program participants feel more comfortable, Krishnamoorthy says they have an opportunity to volunteer.

Participants have made mattresses from used milk bags to send to developing countries, for example.

“We want to keep youth active and interested,” says Krishnamoorthy. “We ask the youth what they would like to achieve by being in the program.”

Krishnamoorthy also has success stories to share. “One youth was shy at the beginning, but now he is going into his second year of medical school. Another young man [shared] in a television interview his understanding of what mental health is. [He said] speaking of it and seeking help has greatly improved his relations with his family and helped to improve his own mental health.”

Taking the first step

Many things may prompt a person to decide to volunteer.

I believe volunteering my time is the best way [to] appreciate all blessings in my life.”

One reason might be positive encounters with a particular organization.

“I had a friend who had a very good experience with the nursing staff when her father stayed at [The Ottawa Hospital], and she committed to volunteer to give something back to the cause,” shares Ali.

For others, the decision to start volunteering may arise from a personal situation.

“I lost my hearing about six years ago, and as that happened, my employer refused to accommodate my disability,” says one volunteer from The Ottawa Hospital who wishes to remain anonymous. “Volunteering at the hospital allows me to gain experience so that in the future I can find an employer who will accommodate [me].” 

Some newcomers may be interested in volunteering, but are unsure of where to start or are hesitant to get involved.

Nicholson says that the best time to start is now.

“Facing all of the massive changes you have already faced through immigrating to our country has allowed you to build resiliency you may not recognize,” she says. “Share your concerns honestly with the agency you are considering volunteering with, and that agency will find ways to overcome the barriers that are contributing to your hesitancy.”

Says Ali: “I believe volunteering my time is the best way [to] appreciate all blessings in my life.”


Journalist Priya Ramanujam mentored the writer of this article, through the New Canadian Media mentorship program.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

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