Coming Full Circle

Volunteering brings employment and builds community

The first thing Vera Maesen and her husband noticed about Canada was how friendly the people were.

“We would walk downtown with a map of Vancouver, and people would come up to us and ask us, can we help you?” she recalls. “In Europe it wasn’t like that. You approach someone there and they look at you and ask ‘what do you want from me?’”

They moved to Vancouver from Belgium back in 1999 so her husband, who is now a cancer researcher at The University of British Columbia, could complete his post-doctoral studies.

She got a job working for a company that provided in-home day care and later got a job with the Dutch Consulate in Vancouver. She and her husband started their family, but after she gave birth to her youngest child, she decided not to go back to work after her maternity leave as the cost of child care was too high. “It made more sense to be at home,” she says.

When her youngest entered kindergarten, Vera was ready to return to the workforce. However, it had been ten years since she’d had a job and the world had changed. “I don’t think I realized how much things would change in that time,” she recalls. “We had email back then but so many other things changed in that time.”

So for Vera, volunteering was a good way to update her skills and get back into the workforce.

She found an online posting at Family Services for a volunteer administrative assistant position. She applied for that position and started volunteering for the fund development department working on a project to update the donor database. She was able to brush up on her MS Office skills, and learned Raisers’ Edge, a fundraising management system.

In the meantime, she was applying for jobs and received an offer of full-time employment, but at the same time, a part-time position opened up at Family Services.

“I liked being at Family Services, it’s a nice environment and I wasn’t ready to go back full time because the kids were still young,” she says. “It was very part-time, just 15 hours a week, but it worked out well because my youngest was only in kindergarten.”

The position also gave her the opportunity to work at different Family Services sites: she spent some time at Directions Youth Services, Family Services Adoption Agency, Administration, the Counselling Program, and finally settling in with the FSEAP.

“It was interesting because I got to see other programs and I got to know the other programs at the agency better,” says Vera. “There was a lot of diversity and it was fun to do. You can feel that people are motivated to help others. It’s something I really appreciated.”

Today, things have come full circle for Vera. She recently started a new job as the volunteer coordinator for the 1 to 1 Literacy Society. The program provides volunteers to elementary schools to help children develop their reading skills. Because the program is school based, her work hours are the same as her children’s school hours.

“I am very excited about it, partly because I have kids of my own and I see how important it is to sit with them and read and make sure that they read every day.”

She continues to volunteer with local community groups. She’s the team manager for her kid’s soccer team, and is the volunteer coordinator for The Vancouver Recovery Through Arts Society, a group that provides arts programs for people who suffer from depression or mental illness.

Vera has seen the value in volunteering, both from both sides as a volunteer and a co-ordinator. “What I like about this position is the kids benefit from it but the adult volunteers benefit too.” Many of the volunteers are seniors and enjoy the opportunity to spend time with children.

“In Belgium it’s not so much encouraged to volunteer,” she says. “In Canada people appreciate it more and I think it’s really important that you give back to the community.”