What is your name and role at DIVERSEcity?
Anu Mitra – Volunteer Coordinator for Settlement Services.
How long have you been working at DIVERSEcity?
Over 13 years. I’ve been with the LINC program as a Teaching Assistant, then as a Volunteer Coordinator. I have recently moved to the Settlement department as a Volunteer Coordinator.
What inspired you to work here or why do you do what you do?
Basically I like to help people and being an immigrant myself, I understand the challenges that immigrants face. It really inspired me seeing how the Canadian government provided support in helping new immigrants settle. DIVERSEcity impressed me when I initially started as a client and soon I was offered an opportunity to be a part of their team and help too. I wanted to give back to the society and help the clients with my experience and training.
How do you spend most of your work time?
First of all it starts with checking emails as I have lots of correspondence with volunteers. A big chunk of my time goes into recruiting, training and scheduling volunteers. Volunteer management is part of my job and I have to make sure that there is consistency between staff and volunteers. The recruitment process is lengthy – interviewing, CRC (criminal record check) clearance, reference checks, orientation and entry in the database. The interview usually takes about 40 minutes and each day I interview 3 to 4 volunteers, some of which may be drop ins.
Everyday I schedule at least one volunteer to cover the front desk as a DIVERSEcity Ambassador. They become the first point of contact when any client walks in, thereby taking the load off the regular admin assistants. There are times when they are swarmed with clients, while at other times there may not be much to do. That’s the time I need to keep the volunteers engaged. They need to feel they are gaining experience and that volunteering is worthwhile. So I find projects that they can do in between attending the clients.
I also maintain a database of volunteers and write reports when I’m not attending team meetings.
What advice do you have for your volunteers?
To not just volunteer for the hours! They should contribute in helping the clients’ needs by understanding and guiding them and be part of the clients’ success. Volunteers should be willing to learn, to accept guidance, and to maintain a smooth relationship with others, and not only look for personal gains.
What do you find most enjoyable about your work?
To see the smile on a client’s face when they have achieved something. I’m involved with both students, clients and with volunteers. When my former students feel that I have impacted their lives, and come and hug me because they are happy to have achieved their goals, that becomes my success story too.
From the volunteer side, a lot of the volunteers are happy with my guidance and direction and feel that I have helped them find a job or settle down. Among volunteers, I do have citizens as well as newcomers. For newcomers, volunteering enhances their resumes as they gain Canadian work experience and it helps build their self-esteem. I feel proud to see them grow! For citizens volunteering is mostly to give something back to the community. I have had volunteers who have been with me for 7 years, and it is very satisfying to see I can retain volunteers and see that they are happy to come back.
What are some of the challenges?
One of the biggest challenges is when volunteers don’t keep up to their commitments. For many, it may be because they are looking for jobs and need to cancel at the last moment.
Sometimes retaining volunteers is a challenge. Training them and then having to retrain a different set of people for the same job is frustrating.
It’s also challenging when volunteers don’t follow instructions, and it’s frustrating redoing jobs that aren’t done properly due to lack of understanding.
Is recruiting volunteers difficult?
No, not as DIVERSEcity has now become better known in the community. In the last 13 years I have seen a lot of change. It used to be difficult finding volunteers on a regular basis. I had to do outreach to promote our program and it was very difficult to recruit. But now most people in the community know we have a volunteer component and contact me themselves. We get new volunteers practically every day.
What is the best thing about working at DIVERSEcity?
Meeting multicultural clients and staff who are passionate about their jobs. The coworkers and managers are supportive and encouraging and bring out the best in me.
What are your hobbies and interests and how do you de-stress?
I’m a creative person. I do a lot of crafts, painting, poetry, and I like to dance. I get involved with a lot of cultural programs in my community. I love nature, so I do a lot of bird watching with my husband.
What country or city would you like to visit?
If I had the chance, I would like to visit the Amazon rain-forest.
What book are you currently reading or read last?
I’m reading a book called “Robbery of the Soil” by Rabindranath Tagore. It’s about the importance of replenishing what you take from society and the soil.
Can you share something you are proud of/or a success you had at DIVERSEcity?
When I was in the LINC program with the students, it was great to see how I made an impact on their lives. I especially remember a student who was over 80 years old from Afghanistan. She was deaf and because of her disability, her speech was also not proper. She came to learn English in the pre-literacy level from a village where being in the classroom for her was almost claustrophobic. She had never really been confined to walls. When we help students read we start with phonics. She couldn’t even repeat the phonics since she couldn’t hear. I would help her every day but couldn’t be sure if anything I said registered in her brain. My goal was to help her say and write her name, but I wasn’t really sure if she was getting it. One day I was teaching a new student along with her when I said “b,” the 80 year old lady to my surprise suddenly said “buh.” Tears filled my eyes as I realized she passed the first hurdle through all her challenges. By the end of 6 months she could actually write her full name, and say it! That was a great achievement!
With volunteers, whenever volunteers approach me I try to give everyone a chance. I don’t discriminate even if they are physically or mentally challenged. I think that every person has a strength we can learn from. I’ve had many volunteers who were physically challenged. I had a volunteer who had cerebral palsy, who had trouble walking and her speech was unclear. She couldn’t hold a pen to write and so I would do the writing while she gave the instructions to the class. I brought her in to show students that any hurdle can be overcome. What’s important isn’t just knowledge from books but also seeing that if she can come and volunteer and do things – so can you. Usually when new students arrive they are very discouraged and are struggling. I want to tell them that if she can overcome her barriers, they can too!
Has your job affected your lifestyle? Has it changed your outlook on life?
My outlook has changed quite a bit. Initially I was shy and an introvert! Ever since I started working here I have become more extrovert, confident, empathetic and value what I have. I have developed patience and have learned to be less judgemental. I try to find reasons in other people’s behavioural pattern and try to be positive.
What happens during the interview process with volunteers?
It’s not a very formal interview; it’s more about learning of their abilities. I have to interview prospective volunteers and inform them the details of the various fields they can volunteer in and make them aware of our policies and procedures. I try to learn about their strengths and weaknesses and also give them advice about fields they can volunteer in. For example, if they opt for English Conversation Circles, I ask if they’ve worked with ESL students. I need to find out if they’re willing to learn from me and willing to follow my directions or if they’re just volunteering because they feel that it’s easy! I get to know a little bit more about them and then I can place them in the right field.
If there was one thing you could get the general public to understand about refugees and immigrants, what would it be?
I would say that they should try to be empathetic, and understand the culture they come from before being judgemental. There’s a lot to learn from them. Their courage, perseverance, and strength help me find my values in life.
What is the most important quality for a volunteer working with immigrants and refugees?
Patience! When new immigrants or refugees come, they bring with them the baggage of hurdles in their life. They may react negatively but we have to understand their problems and issues in life. For some it is shown through anger, but once we are patient and listen to them, they also cool down. That’s important.
What are your pet peeves?
When people are being judgemental without knowing someone’s cultural background.