Interview conducted by Amanda Wong, Media and Communications Coordinator
With the world constantly evolving, preparing young people for the professional environment has become increasingly more challenging . A major barrier in the smooth transition to the professional sector has been limited due to the inadequate tools and experiential learning opportunities in our current education system . Overall, these compounding effects result in a mismatched skill set in recent graduates and the current job market .
Youth volunteering is important as it provides the opportunity to build on a variety of transferable skills that can be applied across sectors. Some of these important skills include collaboration, leadership, creative thinking, and problem solving . Volunteering also allows young professionals a space to not only grow their skill set but also gain confidence throughout the process . Finally, youth volunteering introduces channels for youth to connect with their local communities and become aware of the challenges that members of their community face .
Volunteering and Waterlution
Waterlution has always seen the importance of empowering young people through the volunteer youth programs. Young professionals and post secondary students across Turtle Island, ages 19 -29, are encouraged to apply for the Youth Advisory Board (YAB) each year. The Youth Advisors are trained to aid in the facilitation of grade school programs where students across Canada learn to connect with their local waterways. In addition to the facilitation, Youth Advisors are also mentored by the Youth Project Team, guest speakers, and members in the environmental industry throughout the year.
This year the Youth Advisory Board members have been involved in the recruitment of schools in their province for the Young Water Speaks: a Youth Storytelling Contest. After the recruitment process, the volunteers were trained and guided by the Waterlution team on how to lead the workshops for different age groups. It’s inevitable that unique challenges will be encountered throughout this process, but the volunteers are guided by the staff team and provided outlets to reach out to one another to collaborate together to solve any issues. The Youth Advisory Board members are a diverse group with varying interests and each with their own ideas on how to add to the school program. This year the YAB created smaller groups (mini teams) with different focuses, including the Young Water Speaks Travelling Art Exhibit, Social Media, Pen Pal Program, and the recorded YWS Workshops for internet inaccessible schools.
About the Volunteers
Currently the 2020 – 2021 Youth Advisory cohort are over half way through their volunteering experience and we wanted to interview them on their progress so far. This interview includes the perspectives of some of the YAB team including:
Mackenzie Zettler, who holds a Bachelors in Environmental Studies and currently works in digital marketing in the west coast. Melina Sorensen, who is currently completing her master’s degree in the Environment and Sustainability at Royal Roads University. Simran Virk, a nursing student in Alberta and is passionate about youth education. Erin Kohler, is a former canoe guide and outdoor educator in the Yukon with a Bachelor’s in Conservation Science. Mackenzie Simmons, who is pursuing her secondary education teaching degree in Alberta. Finally, Lexy Harquail, a biologist and environmental educator at the River Institute in Cornwall.
Amanda: What drew you to this volunteer role? Was the online/remote platform appealing to you? If so why?
Simran: Waterlution’s mission is to inspire and engage future young leaders to develop a healthy and sustainable relationship with water. I cannot think of a better way other than this volunteer role to help support educational water programming for youth. In my opinion, water is one of the most important resources that we as Canadians have access to and it is important that we learn and share said environmental education. In terms of my specific role as a YAB, I thought it would be a great opportunity to connect with individuals across Canada for workshop facilitation as well as develop my communication, networking and organizational skills. Given the COVID restrictions in place, I thought the online/remote platform was a great way to get involved in this organization and a great philanthropic effort without putting my community as well as the other communities in Canada at a greater risk.
Melina: I was drawn to this volunteer role after my first experience with Waterlution participating in WIL Global 2020. I was very inspired by the organization and the people I met while participating that I was looking for more opportunities to become involved. The online platform was appealing to me, albeit due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. WIL Global 2020 introduced many online resources, and made the idea of an online/remote platform less intimidating. So while it was the only option at the time, the online/remote platform has created a virtual community of support and learning. Additionally, my MSc. program is primarily online/remote, so I was already comfortable with the experience.
Mackenzie Z: There are so many things that drew me to this volunteer role! I have always been passionate about sustainability and water issues and wanted to connect with like minded youth. As well, Waterlution’s dedication to youth leadership and mentoring on 21st century skills was very appealing to me. I also loved the Young Water Speaks contest and wanted to support this initiative. Initially, I didn’t really think any differently about being remote. Now that I’ve been volunteering for a few months, I’m glad that we are remote. It allows me to make my own schedule for volunteering so I can continue to work full time while supporting YWS.
Mackenzie S: I am very passionate about education and environmental conservation and believe that it is so important that youth are given the tools to not only learn about our planet, water, and it’s conservation but also to help them become leaders in these sectors. Being a member of Waterlution’s Youth Advisory Board means that I get to connect with youth and talk about how they can be the eco-leaders of their generation and how they can share their new found knowledge through storytelling.
The online platform was appealing to me! Knowing that Waterlution’s Youth Advisory Board would be using an online platform to connect its members to one another excited me as I knew that I could be connecting with people across Canada who are interested in the same topics as I am but all bring a large variety of perspectives to conversation.
Erin: I was really intrigued by the YAB role because it brought together a few of my passions: water, writing, and working with youth. I was moving out of a career in canoe guiding and looking for a way to stay connected with water in my professional life and volunteering with YAB felt like a great way to do that. The online platform worked well for me as I was able to connect with YAB members and youth across the country while living in the Yukon, away from most national programs.
Lexy: I received an email from another YAB, who knew about my workplace through a water related event we conduct, asking if I knew anyone that would like to apply along with the call for applications. The call seemed tailor made for me as two of my biggest passions are art and environmental education, it felt like a sign that she’d reached out to me so I had to apply! I’m not sure how the format would normally work in the non COVID world, I was definitely disappointed that there were no in person meetings/retreats/events as I love to travel and meet new people but I find the virtual format really easy to fit into my very busy schedule.
Amanda: Are you finding a sense of community online through the Youth Advisory Board during Covid? Please explain how the sense of community is being curated.
Simran: Building a sense of community with a group of individuals who have never met in person can come with tremendous difficulties and challenges. However, I have never felt anything like this with the Waterlution team. Each of our meetings include several ice breakers, like imagining our favourite place in nature, which seems like a simple task but it has really allowed the team to connect on a deeper level. Also, each of our check-ins include questions like: how we are doing on our goals, and how we are feeling with everything else that may be happening around us in our life. These discussions help build a sense of community and belonging within a group that genuinely cares.
Melina: Yes absolutely! The combination of monthly meetings and the ongoing WhatsApp/Facebook group makes me feel supported and like I am a part of a community of like minded youth. Specifically, the mentorship call with Karen was so inspiring, and we all felt safe to have a vulnerable discussion about our career paths and challenges. This really made me feel like I was not alone in my journey or my struggles, especially heightened due to Covid-19.
Mackenzie Z: Our monthly meetings are always a great experience and make me feel connected to the team across Canada. The Waterlution staff do a great job at keeping us connected and the mini teams allow YAB members to connect around smaller topics that are important to us.
Mackenzie S: I do feel like I am part of a community although I have not met any of my YAB team members in person. Our team leaders have created wonderful online meetings that prompt us to share our interests, stories and backgrounds with one another which leads to great group discussions which inturn creates a sense of community with one another. I am very grateful to be able to connect with such a wonderful group of people during a time where interaction with one another is so limited!
Erin: It was a bit tough at first to find a sense of community within the YAB team as everything was online but now that we are working in smaller teams on specific projects the sense of community is definitely developing.
Lexy: I’ve never imagined that I could feel so connected to people I’ve never met before! The mini teams have definitely been my biggest source of community, as it allows me to spend more time interacting with other YAB, the group calls often have such quick breakout rooms that I don’t feel I have as much time to connect! I hope to continue to be in contact with the YAB that I’ve met even after our volunteer positions are over.
Amanda: What has been your biggest take away from this experience? What is the top skill you gained throughout the past several months volunteering? Explain how you built the skill and how you think it will be useful in the future.
Simran: From this experience, I learned the importance of lifelong learning in terms of the various storytelling and leadership training workshops I had the opportunity to take part in. Through these workshops, not only was I able to learn more about how to be a better leader in my community, but I was also able to work on my workshop delivery as a member of the YAB. Initiating and managing teamwork is a major skill that I have developed during the past several months. Considering that this volunteer program was online, I was able to collaborate with individuals across Canada to conduct and facilitate workshops. This skill is highly transferable considering the online shift of events and jobs. Also, this skill of effective teamwork also builds on qualities such as empathy, active listening and strong communication. Providing successful teamwork examples during interviews can then help employers understand how you’ll work with others in their company.
Melina: My biggest take-away has been learning to integrate story-telling and arts into science. I have typically been a very science-minded person, and did not think I had much creative ability. However, after mentorship and teachings by Helena and the rest of the team, I was able to tap into a sense of creativity that I hope to bring forward into disseminating my research.The top skill I have learned is online facilitation tools and communication in an online setting. This skill was built through experiential/participatory learning, observing the Waterlution team and the creativity of fellow YAB members. It will be, and already has been useful in disseminating and communicating my research, and participating in online meetings/forums.
Mackenzie Z: My biggest takeaway has been that volunteering is very rewarding and there is so much to learn! In the first few months with Waterlution, I’ve learned so much and gained valuable skills that improve my confidence in so many areas.
Good things take time, focus your energy on things you want to see completed.
It’s hard to pick just one skill I’ve gained in my time volunteering! I think I’ve learned most about storytelling and different techniques that make stories engaging. This will definitely help me further my communications and marketing career.
Mackenzie S: One of the biggest skills that I have developed since I began working on the Youth Advisory Board is how to make professional connections (online). As we began to administer online workshops for students and youth, our main goal was to reach out to as many teachers or educational professionals as we could to let them know about our program. This meant that I needed to learn how to connect with teachers online in a professional manner and work with them to create a workshop that best suited their class and their educational needs. Being able to work with educational professionals and their students was amazing and helped me further my communication skills.
Erin: I’ve learned a lot about managing my time in a volunteering role and hope that I can bring that into other aspects of my life.
Lexy: I think this question is twofold! I’ve noticed lately that I talk A LOT during the YAB meetings I am a part of. I feel like I’ve really begun to feel comfortable sharing my thoughts, feelings and ideas with others in a group setting which is something I normally struggle with even with friends and family. I think this will be the biggest takeaway in my personal life. I also feel that meeting YAB deadlines has pushed me to be more accountable, not just because I am required to, but because it’s something I want to do. I think this will be a big takeaway in both my personal and professional life.
Amanda: Have you encountered any challenges throughout your volunteering journey on the online space? How did you overcome it? How has COVID affected your volunteer capacity/interests?
Simran: During this volunteering journey, an ongoing challenge has been remaining actively engaged as a team whether it be the entire YAB or the later established mini-teams that focus on specific projects within the organization. Some strategies I used to overcome this challenge were taking part in the casual hangout meetings such as the Christmas party that Waterlution conducted, and fostering personal connections with the team. These strategies allowed me to connect with the team instead of just viewing this as a volunteering task.
Melina: My biggest challenge has been time management and taking on too many responsibilities in my life. I overcame it by being honest with myself and Olivia to communicate my limitations to participation. This challenge was absolutely heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic has unfortunately affected my volunteer capacity more than I anticipated. The uncertainty of job availability paired with anxieties about my health and the health of my family limited my mental capacity to volunteer. Knowing that others are having the same challenges, and having discussions with fellow YAB members really helped alleviate some of these anxieties. I feel fortunate to have these connections and support network moving forward through these challenging times.
Mackenzie Z: The main challenge that I’ve encountered throughout my volunteering journey has been self-accountability. I am glad to be connecting remotely with other YAB however sometimes it has been difficult to keep on task. To overcome this, I focus on the big picture and how my small actions contribute to Waterlution’s overall mission and impact. COVID has allowed me to work from home, which has opened up more time in my day to dedicate to volunteering. Yay for no commute!
Mackenzie S: I am not only a member of Waterlution’s YAB but also a full time university student. Taking on both roles during a pandemic means lots of screen time which can lead to me feeling fatigued and my eyes and brain feeling a bit fuzzy. The best way to combat all that blue-light that I am getting is to get outside during my breaks! Nothing is better for a tired brain than going and getting some fresh air.
Erin: It was tough sometimes to stay motivated and connected when everything is online. I always felt good and motivated after each meeting so I just had to remind myself of that. When I started with the YAB I was unemployed, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and looking for ways to add to my resume and contribute meaningfully to my community. In a weird way I may not have become involved with YAB if it hadn’t been for COVID.
Lexy: I think that volunteering online, during a pandemic, while also working full time made it more difficult to facilitate workshops – in fact I have not hosted any workshops yet. I have attended almost every call (mini-team and full call) except for 2 (and one was due to poor internet connection). When starting my volunteer position, I did expect to be more heavily working in workshop delivery and social media development but I’ve really enjoyed contributing to both the in person events mini team as well as the exhibition mini team.
Amanda: What projects or elements of the Young Water Speaks Project are you most excited for in your volunteer journey? (can be completed already or to come)
Simran: For my volunteer journey at Waterlution, I was most excited about leading a Young Water Speaks Workshop and I have had the opportunity to lead it with a group of engaged and enthusiastic students. It was an amazing experience sharing my water story whilst inspiring the students to create their own!
Melina: I am excited to see the entries of students!
Mackenzie Z: I am excited to start evaluating the stories that have been submitted! I’m looking forward to seeing what the participants have put together and basking in their creativity.
Mackenzie S:I am really looking forward to creating online events for new and potential YAB members! I am excited to share with potential teammates some of my awesome experiences that I have had this season. I am, of course, looking forward to working with more youth in the future through online workshops!
Erin: I am excited to see the stories from the youth come in and be turned into a travelling exhibit.
Lexy: My favourite element of the project so far was the song and presentation by Valerie Ivy – I felt so serene listening it was incredible! My favourite upcoming element is seeing the submissions and the exhibition!
COVID – 19 has definitely added some complexity to the volunteering program and the facilitation process. However, it’s clear that despite these challenges building connection and community has been successful throughout the community building activities during the volunteer meetings. You can stay up to date with the YAB and youth focused events HERE.
We can’t wait to see the final product of the Traveling Art Exhibit which will display the story entries submitted by youth across the country!
Thank you to all the YAB for your wonderful work on the school programs and for participating in this interview!
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- Napawan, N. C., Simpson, S. A., & Snyder, B. (2017). Engaging youth in climate resilience planning with social media: Lessons from# OurChangingClimate. Urban Planning, 2(4), 51-63.
- Karajkov, R. (2003). Volunteering and benefits for youth employment.