When people think of the Downtown Eastside, they usually think of poverty, homelessness, and drug use. But, in the four months that I worked within this community, I discovered a new perspective.
I worked for a non-profit called Union Gospel Mission (UGM), a Christian organization dedicated to helping individuals overcome poverty, homelessness, and addiction. As a Resource Development Assistant, I actually spent most of my time thanking and calling our donors at my office desk. Yet while I worked a 9-5 office job, UGM’s work within the Downtown Eastside community provided me with opportunities to grow, both personally and professionally. Here are some of the lessons I learned along the way:
1. Know How Your Role Fits Within the Big Picture of the Organization
Within my first few days on the job, I received training that was centered on how the organization functioned as a whole. I learned about the variety of programs and services that UGM provides, which goes far beyond simply providing a meal and shelter to those who are homeless. In addition, we have summer camp partnerships and offer recovery programs and a stabilization centre for women.
Most importantly, I saw first-hand how the programs and services at UGM were helping people. That made my role of thanking and interacting with donors so much more meaningful, as I saw how their funds were being put towards life-changing initiatives. Once I understood the big picture of how my job was a part of the organization, I became much more passionate about my role and the work I was doing.
2. Get to Know People Around you; and NO, I’m Not Just Talking About your Co-workers
I have heard so many stories while I’ve been here. The men in our Alcohol & Drug Recovery program reside in the same building where I worked. As we ate lunch together, they would share their stories with me—many of which contained experiences of pain, abuse, and shame. I felt honoured that they were willing to share these deeply personal accounts with me and was in complete awe of their honesty and vulnerability in opening up.
I have talked to everyone from the custodian who empties the trash in our office every morning to the receptionist who greets guests downstairs. Regardless of their job description and their role within the organization, they are all wonderful people who have some extraordinary life experiences. I would have hugely missed out on getting to know them had I interacted only with the people on my own office floor.
3. Explore the World Outside of your Office
I had the privilege of going on a comprehensive tour of the areas in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. There, I found a rich and varied history of the neighbourhood that media outlets rarely cover—if they do, it’s usually through a very negative lens—including the fact that it was once the central hub of the City of Vancouver. I discovered also that it is a thriving neighbourhood and community where everyone knows everyone.
Amazing things happened when I stepped out of my comfort zone, and I met some of the most compassionate and resilient people along the way. While I was able to take away professional skills that would help me in future positions, the most important lessons I learned will be with me for a lifetime. I found that everyone has a story and deserves to be treated with dignity, and that hope can be found in the unlikeliest places. I will cherish my experience here from my office desk and beyond.