As a volunteer with lived experience, I was asked to attend this year's SCATEH Spring Forum to speak about what it's like to become, and be, a Peer Volunteer; and to share how it has impacted my life, and that of others in our community.
SCATEH Spring Forum 2016
My name is Nick Robinson; I am a Barrie resident, and an Independent Community Advocate.
I was asked by Sara Peddle, Executive Director of the David Busby Centre, if I would attend this year’s Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness (SCATEH) Spring Forum to speak to you about what it's like to become, and be, a Peer Volunteer; and to share with you how it has impacted my life, and that of others in our community.
Admittedly, I had not heard the term 'Peer' Volunteer used until lately when Sara first used it with me regarding my own personal progress, and my close interaction within the Barrie downtown community.
But, as Sara plainly put it; the same guests that I took shelter with 2 winters ago in the Barrie Out Of The Cold (BOOTC) program see that now I'm housed, volunteering at the Busby Centre and on the outreach van, advocating on their behalf within the community, studying in the library, pursuing my interests, and otherwise doing better for myself- and that’s where the Peer Value comes from.
I hadn't really thought into it quite that much. For the most part, and certainly in the earlier days, I was just plugging away at my own revival and helping out where I could along the way. But, when put into that context, I can see how my own progression can have a positive impact on others. Whether intentional, or not, my actions, associations, and involvement in the community does put me in a peer role position.
Interestingly enough, and to Sara’s point; two days prior to being invited here I was on the Busby Outreach van, and there were a few stops that night where several people were curiously surprised to see me hop out of the van with the binder and phone in arm. I was met with smiles on familiar faces, a high-five, a fist-pump, some intrigue, and even curious inquiries of "Hey!? What are you doing on the van?", and, “Are you working on the van now?”
This wasn't the only time or place that this has happened either; it actually happens quite often, and only varies depending on how active I am within the community. Although I'm not very vocal about the extent of my volunteering, most of the people that I see while doing so know me from within our own circles, and that typically speaks for me; so, essentially, I’m just leading by example.
That said, I do know that the peer element of my volunteerism could very well raise hope in others that there is an ‘out’ of the system- or at least from the monotonous drudgery of it. But hope is just a four letter word for so many people stuck in the system, and it's practically nonexistent in the downtown core. And without hope, in the very least, people won’t become empowered to move beyond their current situation.
So, if what I'm doing personally does encourage or inspire anyone in any way to feel some hope for themselves, then an opportunity has been created to help another take ownership over their own life- and I’m sure most here will agree, that's a good place to start.
Back-story & Community Connection
Most of you here today are likely unaware of my back-story, or my connection to the people in our community that rely on our social services. So, about 4 years ago I fell into the system when my world came to an abrupt halt; the eventual outcome of decades of untreated PTSD which lead me to make numerous ill-fated life choices, ultimately resulting in my sudden displacement from mainstream society.
It took me about 4 months to figure out the 'W5 of how to survive', and to get settled-in to a basic structured routine, and some feeling of stability. Once I found the Busby Centre though, I found my home-base with access to resources and support, and the launch point to begin on my road to recovery.
Within the first year of my 'lived experience' in our social service system though, I was deeply compelled to get involved in my community- specifically within the downtown core; primarily to speak for those that can't or won't speak for themselves, but also in the hopes of bringing about some positive social change.
I’d already seen, heard, and gone through enough in the first 6 months to know that there were some serious social & systemic issues that needed attention. Having immersed myself into the downtown community, I knew first-hand how these issues were directly affecting the very people in which we’re all trying to help.
I hadn’t written in 20 years, but it was then that I became inspired to write again, and to write about my observations. I wrote several articles dealing with our most common social & economic issues; and used my Facebook community page to help raise awareness and support for my advocacy work.
From thereon out I was inspired by my accomplishment, and empowered by the positive reception and support of city residents, community partners, and the downtown community itself; And I have been riding that wave ever since, building on each successive accomplishment, and gradually getting more involved with our local community groups & organizations, and within the lives of downtown residents.
Over this time I’ve been actively volunteering and advocating wherever & whenever I was called upon to do so; both officially, and unofficially. And during this period, while living at street level, I've met 1,000's of people, listened to 100's of life stories, made some invaluable connections with key community partners, and even made a few friends along the way.
Ultimately, since I have lived the typical middle class life, and fallen heavily into our social service system too, I understand both sides of the societal coin; and this gives me a unique perspective on our socioeconomic issues that allows me to consider, and act, in the best interests of those concerned.
The Importance of Inclusion
Whether I’m still in the system, or I’ve made my way out; I have valuable knowledge and insights that can only help with our common causes. I am more than willing to use it, and share it, in our mutual efforts to develop & implement practical solutions to these issues.
I can, and will, continue to go it alone as I have done for the most part so far. My solo efforts are having a positive effect, and making some difference; but it’s limited in its reach and impact.
But there is strength in numbers, and power in knowledge. And, as a collective, the combined knowledge and skill sets of trained professionals such as yourselves, and experienced citizens such as me, can only have a greater positive impact on our community.
In my experience, the ‘snag’ in many social policies & procedures is that they can be ‘cookie-cutter’ style systems of service that aim to fit as many people as possible into one mold- understandably, given the high demand for services. But we aren’t cookies! We are human beings; and invariably have our own personal, although often common, issues to deal with.
But this can be alleviated or remedied by utilizing the real world experience & knowledge of people with lived experience that are equally committed to achieving practical solutions to our social issues.
So, if you are not already doing so; consider reaching out into the community and tapping into the wealth of knowledge & experience from people who have been through the system, or are still in it. Some of the greatest ideas can come from the most unlikely of sources, and are often born out of situations of crisis, or peril.
Better still, should an agency have a recipient of their services want to give back by joining in your efforts, I would highly recommend that true credence be given to the contributions that that person can make to your mission. Finding someone who will stay, even after they don’t need the service anymore, is extremely rare- so don’t pass-up the opportunity!
In closing; being a volunteer and getting involved in my community has been incredibly rewarding for me personally. And, 4 years after hitting rock bottom, to be here today speaking to an audience of dedicated and influential community partners and leaders- my own peers, about what it’s like to be a peer in our community, is another personal achievement that will further motivate and empower me to keep on doing what I’m doing; and that’s ‘being the change’ that I want to see in this world.
I thank you for your time, and appreciate your attention.