It started 30 years ago, June 1987, with a fresh graduate from William’s college, and 90 kids from all walks of life, a summer service program for Kansas youth. That day, Youth Volunteer Corps embarked on a mission to provide youth with opportunities to volunteer, not only addressing issues within their communities, but inspiring a lifetime ethic of service. They’ve come quite some way since then. With over 300,000 youth engaged, and 34 locations across Canada and the United States, Youth Volunteer Corps (YVC) has transformed lives all over North America, mine included.
It was two years ago when I started my journey with YVC; A tiny, timid child, fresh out of elementary school, showing up to a project on the other side of the city, surrounded by grade 12 students. In any other situation, being in the vicinity of anyone that tall, frankly, would have sent me running in panic. But from the very first project, despite the extremely tall volunteers, and the 32 mosquito bites I received in the span of two hours (yes, I did count), Youth Volunteer Corps, and Youth Central, its host organization, felt like a family. 2 years, 700 volunteer hours, and a sizeable stack of volunteer shirts later, YVC has given me so many opportunities, lead me to meet so many incredible youth, and brought me quite a few places, most recently, Kansas City, Missouri (still don’t quite understand American geography?), for YVC summit 2017.
Yes, for Youth Volunteer Corps 30th anniversary, their annual summit was held in Kansas City, where it all began. And Youth Central was so lucky to receive enough funding to send two of our volunteers (myself included!) from the YVC program to attend, along with a super cool Youth Central chaperone!
Our journey to summit started bright and early, Thursday morning, 4:30 AM at the airport. Now I had admittedly pulled what was essentially an all nighter, so I was a tad bit exhausted from band concert, to last minute packing, to being at the airport nauseatingly early, but nevertheless, I was extremely excited for my first (of, hopefully many) YVC summit(s). From Calgary to Salt Lake City, and then to Kansas City, it was a grueling day of TSA checks, and layovers, but so worth it. Our first day, from watching the sun rise over SLC, to touching down in briefly-warmer-than-Calgary-but-not-for-long Kansas City, to visiting the American Jazz Museum (!!!), and watching a Kansas City jazz band perform, to gorging ourselves on ribs at the legendary Kansas City barbeque, Arthur Bryant’s (Obama ate at this barbeque!), I felt so immersed in the culture, and I was falling for this city before the actual summit even started.
Needless to say, the summit was everything I could have imagined, and so much more. Held in the beautiful Kauffman Conference Center, it was two amazing days of speeches, activities, and workshops, with a mass service project, and a beautiful dinner/awards ceremony to end it off. I met so many inspiring, committed youth and gained many valuable lessons. I really wish I could write about every single person I met, and every new experience I came across, but I’m not sure there are enough words to do it justice. So as per my usual debater structure, here are three things I learned from YVC summit 2017:
a) “Murica” is not as scary as I had built up in my head.
It’s been a while since I’ve stepped foot in the states, and if I’m being totally honest, I wasn’t exactly thrilled about being back for the first time since… certain political changes. Especially with Missouri being considered Midwestern/Southern, and a generally red state, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect in terms of what their attitude towards us technical “foreigners” would be. And frankly, being some weird Chinese kid from Canada probably did not help me blend in; I didn’t dare try to emulate their ever-so-slight Southern drawl, and as it turns out, being in Kansas really brought out the “eh” in all of us Canadians, so a camouflage plan wasn’t exactly a viable one. But it took us about 2 hours within landing to quickly dispel that fear. In fact, one of the first things we remarked about Kansas was how incredibly nice everyone was. It was almost unsettling? Because we came in on our high horse, thinking Canada was the nicest place in the world, and that no one could top us, but somehow, Kansas did. From the doting receptionist at the Country Club Plaza visitor centre, to our Uber driver turned unwitting Kansas historian, to the charming Miles Davis look alike who greeted us at the American Jazz Museum, Kansas was a city that made me feel immediately at home, it just felt like was such a loving, and accepting community, and I was enraptured by everyone I met.
Funnily enough, being one of two Canadian locations at the summit (fun fact: Youth Central was the first organization in Canada to house the YVC program, making Calgary the first Canadian affiliate, and up until the establishment of YVC Terrace, was the only Canadian location), us Canadians became almost a novelty amongst the American affiliates. It was a weekend of being constantly queried about Canadian stereotypes, from our free healthcare, to our fanatical love of Tim Hortons, hockey, and maple syrup, to our relentless winters, to our “president with the wooshy hair”, and basically being an ambassador to everything Canadian. We definitely felt very special, and as it turns out, I had nothing to be afraid of, being the only 2 Canadian volunteer delegates amongst all the Americans. We even had a few kids from the YVC of Greater Philadelphia ask us to autograph our group photo before we left. So while my original fear was that America was going to swallow us whole, we ended up almost being Canadian celebrities!
b) YVC Calgary is incredibly lucky to be able to function the way it does, but there’s always more that we can do.
The most interesting part, by far, about attending summit, was interacting with all the other YVC affiliates, and seeing just how much their programs differ from Calgary’s. Apart from being one of two Canadian locations, and having one of the biggest programs within Youth Volunteer Corps, we function drastically differently from a majority of the other affiliates I was fortunate enough to work with over the course of the weekend. It was absolutely fascinating to learn about how the YVC programs that preside in smaller towns literally create their own volunteer opportunities to address community issues, and that almost all volunteers are involved in this planning process. Being such a large program, the YVC Calgary doesn’t need to create its own projects in order to have projects; we have agencies contacting us, requesting volunteers, and having all volunteers implicated in the planning process would be nearly impossible with a program of our caliber. Nonetheless, the projects that they had planned were exceptionally carried out, and had impacts that are definitely different from those of our YVC program’s projects. I had never previously realized all the work that goes into creating, and coordinating a project from scratch, and I definitely look forward to hopefully incorporating some of these new types of projects with distinctive impacts into our program.
It also stunned me how advanced Calgary’s YVC program is, in comparison to some smaller affiliates. While we were at summit, there was a lot of talk about YDAT (YVC Database), a new, uniform database to make signing up for projects, and tracking hours easier for affiliates. Our YVC program has had a fairly developed database for years now, but as it turns out, for certain locations, volunteers would have to physically sign up at the local headquarters, and hours were tracked manually, as in, by hand. It really helped put into perspective how advanced our program is, and I’m so proud to be a part of such an exceptional affiliate. In fact, while presenting the certificates for the 100 in 1 award, Youth Central had to take home several envelopes with certificates, on account of how expansive our program is!
c) There is absolutely no place I’d rather be than with my amazing YVC family
At the end of the day, YVC summit really reminded me of why I love volunteering so much, and why I am so proud to be part of this amazing group of youth. YVC summit was no doubt one of the most valuable experiences I have ever been lucky enough to participate in, one that cannot be quantified within a single blog post, and it was astounding to meet all the extraordinary youth changing the world in their respects. If I thought the volunteers I met in Calgary were intimidatingly impressive, the youth I met at the summit were jaw-droppingly accomplished. I am so incredibly grateful to have attended, to have been able to partake in all the unique experiences, and to have brought back with me the everlasting friendships, and memories I created there. Youth Volunteer Corps is about more than building houses, it’s about building families, and bonds, and that’s something that I really felt that weekend. This program brought me to Kansas City, it brought me up to be who I am. So there’s only one question left. Where to next?
(featured image courtesy of the Youth Volunteer Corps Facebook page)