Test Drive: Volunteering with the Welcome Centre Shelter for Women and Families
The Welcome Centre Shelter is a homeless shelter for single women and families. They have the ability to house up to seventeen women at a time. With the help from their current Capital Fundraising campaign, they’re hoping to expand their capacity to house families as well.
Their small grassroots staff relies heavily on community support. On an normal week, they average anywhere between 75 and 90 volunteer hours. “That’s two full-time people that this agency would never be able to afford,” their Volunteer Coordinator, Anastasia Adams told us.
The majority of volunteers come from the University of Windsor’s Social Work program, but their volunteer program is open to anyone eligible. “You can immediately see how you are supporting the shelter directly.”
We spoke to Anastasia about how volunteers can be prepared to work at a shelter and make the most out of their experience:
What does the Welcome Centre offer in the community?
We service anyone who is dealing with homelessness for any reason. People confuse us with other agencies that are specifically set up to help with women who are dealing with issues of domestic violence. We support homelessness for any reason, for anyone. Anyone in Windsor and Essex County, we are the agency that anyone in Windsor-Essex can come to for help.
We offer short term housing. Windsor is a Housing First community, we put a big emphasis on finding sustainable housing and then we connect you with whatever services you need. The idea is that you won’t be able to deal with whatever barriers you’re experiencing causing homelessness if you’re living on the street or couch surfing.
What roles do volunteers have here?
We have a couple different roles that people can volunteer to do. Our volunteer opportunities are for women only because it’s a women-only facility. We operate a food bank two days a week and we have volunteers who run that.
We have a Shelter Support Volunteer, where you are paired with a staff member and are an extra set of hands. You do a little bit of everything. This is a great volunteer opportunity for anyone in the Social Work program at the University of Windsor. They have a ton of students who come to volunteer. It’s a good peak into what agency life is like, what it’s like to deal directly with clients, and what it takes to run a house and agency like ours.
We have a drop in program, two days a week. Tuesday is lunch and Thursday is dinner. It’s a little more laid back and social. You come in and hang out with the women who come to the drop in program. You make sure everyone gets something to eat, help facilitate activities, and chat with the women so it’s a little more of a social setting to stay connected to services here.
What qualities do you look for in a volunteer?
Flexibility. A lot of people will have preconceived notions about what they’d like to do here. It’s kind of a balance. You need to understand the needs of the agency. I’m very upfront with volunteers and a lot of times it takes them a couple shifts to realize if it’s a good fit or not. I’d much rather have a conversation with a volunteer after a couple of shifts and they say “this isn’t for me” versus them just not showing up.
Why wouldn’t someone be a good fit?
I ask everyone to be super open minded. It is a place where you have to leave your judgement and biases at the door and come in with the willingness to help anyone. Sometimes you see things that might make you uncomfortable or that might not jive with your own personal belief system.
We are a Harm Reduction facility, so we offer harm reduction materials to any of our clients. If that’s something you are not cool with, then it wouldn’t be a good fit. This is the only women-centered Harm Reduction facility in the city, so it’s important to provide these materials.
What should volunteers expect on a normal day?
You have to be able to roll with it. Sometimes you come in and run your butt off and won’t sit down for a minute. Other times, it’s really pokey and the staff might even be struggling to find things to do. It’s really what you make of it. Sometimes there might not be any tasks for you to do, but you can go hang out with the clients who are here. That’s volunteering too.
Are all volunteer roles like that?
The food bank is a little more straightforward. You have to commit to a certain day and time. We ask for a minimum six-month commitment. We are flexible with that because we have so many students who are on a semester schedule which isn’t quite six months. If you’re able to commit to coming here each week for a couple of hours, we will accommodate your schedule and find a spot for you.
Are all volunteers from the Social Work program?
We also have volunteers who come from very different lines of work and just come here to fold laundry, sort donations, do some of the busywork. They find fulfillment in that.
How can volunteering at a shelter prepare someone for a career?
We have had many volunteers who have gone on to retain employment here. If you are in the Social Work program, we do have different roles here at the shelter. At the top, our most structured position is our Social Workers. You generally have two social workers on staff. One of our current social workers came through here first as a student placement and was hired on.
When we do have volunteers who are interested in working in this type of agency, I try to communicate that to the staff, so they can open them up to different opportunities. For example, we have a handful of volunteers who are trained on our intake process. Even though they aren’t staff, they know how to handle clients when they come to the front door and start the process. That’s a great help for the staff. That’s one way we help to accommodate and make sure everyone is getting the most out of their volunteer placement.