I’ve been volunteering and working in Vancouver’s gay community for about 5 years and it’s given me so much. I started after taking a chance on a 4 day leadership course for gay guys that really, I wasn’t super comfortable doing. For all my glib bravado or standoffish face, I am an introvert. Leadership doesn’t come naturally to me, bossiness sure, but the prospect of being surrounded by mostly younger gay guys for 4 days seemed exhausting.
Nevertheless, at the recommendation of a colleague at my University’s Pride group, I decided to do it. It changed my life. Not in a made some friends or learned some skills, changed my life. It actually changed the trajectory of the last 4 years. Yes I made friends, shared, and helped to create an open community with other gay guys that otherwise I wouldn’t have known, but it was after what I did that made all the difference.
I was nearing my graduation from an engineering program, but was pretty disillusioned about it. After 20 months of the most mind-numbing co-op work experience, I had no desire to get a job in that field. So I relied on my most reliable decision making tactic, put it off until the answer presents itself. It was probably the reason I was in this mess in the first place, but I’m sure there was some kind of happy poetic solution to my problem.
When the 4 day leadership course was wound up, I started volunteering with the organization that facilitated it. It started with condom packaging every monday night. A bunch of guys and I would stuff condoms and lube into small cardboard packages which would be given out for free at bars and clubs in the gay village. Aside from providing me an endless source of puns – or at least the same ones recycled endlessly – it was fun. I didn’t get to volunteer much during my time as an engineering student, 5-8 courses a term will do that. It was in that phase of my life that I adopted my glum answer of “alive” whenever people would ask me how I am.
Volunteering, it turns out, was fun. It let me meet other guys who again, I would not have normally met in my curmudgeonly introversion. After packaging for awhile, I started doing outreach at the bars. This too was enjoyable. I was contributing and as hip-to-be-square as it seems, I felt kind of cool doing it. A few months later I got a job with the organization and have been working there ever since in some capacity or another. Though my employee file folder still says Temporary Outreach Worker instead of my name, I’ve been given tremendous opportunity to learn. I’ve learned to use websites, blogs, and social media to communicate complex medical information to gay guys. I’ve been able to work in bars, bathhouses and on photo shoots with some tremendously hot guys. I’ve also been a research assistant on national studies and presented at major gay men’s health conferences. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything.
If it sounds like I’m trying to brag, I am and am very bad at it. What I am doing is rambling about the importance of showing up and being a part of something. I bring this up because today I went to an event hosted by The Vancouver Writers Fest. It’s not my first, I went to a panel featuring Maggie Stiefvater and Maureen Johnson who were a little terrible to the librarian host, but it was wonderfully entertaining. I don’t imagine panels like these aren’t easy to put together and often required a lot of volunteers.
At tonights event, there were two kids who couldn’t have been more than 10. That they were able to come to a library on a school night to hear actual authors speak is an amazing thing. I’m hoping that one of them will be the next J. K. Rowling or Stephen King – and that the other one is their rival who finds modest success as a bitter copy editor. I’m thinking that, like the gay community, the writing community requires those selfless people volunteering their time to host events, man tables, and set up chairs so readers and writers alike can be inspired and learn. In my case, the writing group I go to is hosted by person with a PhD in literature and his lessons have proved invaluable in transforming our ragtag group into assassins… errr… writers.