March 21, 2015 marks my 5th anniversary with Pandora’s Collective, a literary arts non-profit organization in Vancouver. In a nutshell, this small group of creatives works hard year-round to make the arts accessible to all as a tool for healing and inspiration. I came across it just weeks after my mom passed away in 2009, when I desperately needed to find a community that would encourage my inner writer. Writing was something that had been a part of my life since childhood, but in recent years I had stowed that love away. In doing so, I had lost an important part of my Self. On a mission to find writers, I Googled ‘poetry readings + Vancouver’, and found Pandora’s Collective. A couple weeks later, I attended one of their free, drop-in writing groups called Word Whips at the Britannia branch of the Vancouver Public Library. The executive director, Bonnie Nish, provided writing prompts and the opportunity to share.

I joined their mailing list and vowed to attend Word Whips again, but soon found out I was pregnant with my second child. The pregnancy left me ill for the first half and feeling too pregnant for the second half to do much of anything. But a few weeks after my son was born in 2010, I received an email asking for volunteer grant writers. This was the perfect way for me to be involved because it was a work-from-home position and a way to use my writing to serve others. I saw the spark that this group of people ignited in me after just one session at Word Whips and I wanted to do what I could to make that available to others. I mark March 21 as my anniversary because that was the day I went to the volunteer orientation meeting, and the day the gifts started rolling in.

The 5 gifts I have gained from volunteering with a non-profit:

1. The opportunity to learn and expand my skill-set.

I had never written a grant proposal in my life but with Bonnie’s help, and the guidance provided by the arts councils we were applying to, I was able to make my way through the process. This is an area in which it seems there is always much to learn but it felt amazing to use my brain in this way! Problem-solving, collecting information, understanding budgets (that was huge for me!) were skills that I was refining and acquiring. These look great on a resume and can be applied to paid positions in other fields as well. Larger non-profits pay their grant writers and fund developers, so if you think this is something you want to do at some point, find an intimate group to volunteer with, learn some basics, get some training behind you and you could be well on your way to a fulfilling career!

2. Confidence in myself.

When I joined Pandora’s Collective, I was entering uncharted territory. I was a writer in my heart, not ‘out loud.’ The literary arts were like a secret lover to me, one I hadn’t spent a lot of time with. Though I originally got involved as a grant writer, I found the community so welcoming, and Bonnie so open to my ideas, that I boldly asked to lead a new Word Whips chapter – closer to my home! I am so grateful that Bonnie had the faith in me to do this. I’ve partnered up with Karen, a writer from the White Rock community, and we co-host on the first Wednesday of every month. We’ve just past our 4 1/2 year mark! Before getting involved with Pandora’s Collective, I didn’t have an avenue for my ideas or the confidence in which to say I am a contributing member of the writing community. This confidence can spill over into other areas of life – work, relationships, dream-chasing…and a volunteer environment is a pretty safe space to gain some.

3. Friendships and mentors.

Even though my work with Pandora’s Collective has largely been done from my home, based on the needs of my family, I have had many opportunities to get to know the other members and the tireless team who put together these events. Meetings are always fun and inspiring – have you ever hung out with people who live in their creativity? It’s very cool! And of course, in and around these meetings and events come the real life stories. We get to know each other’s family lives, work situations, good days and bad. And having Bonnie as a mentor as I ‘learn the ropes’ has been invaluable. I know that if a time came when I was no longer involved with Pandora’s Collective, I have some friendships that will go beyond that. Volunteering definitely provides a community so even if that’s the only thing you are searching for, it’s a great reason to spend your time this way.

4. Experiences.

Volunteering has given me the opportunity to do things I might not otherwise do. Call up magazines for back copies for swag bags. Correspond with the art gallery for a silent auction donation. Get up on stage and read my own poetry (doing this again on Tues. Mar. 24 if you can join us for a free evening of art, music and poetry). See how a festival is put together. Listen to established writers read their work. No matter where you volunteer, you get to see how things happen from many perspectives. And you will benefit from each one.

5. Personal satisfaction of using my time authentically.

Time is constantly on our minds. It slips away from us, there’s never enough to go around, we are warned to use it wisely. It may seem like there isn’t enough time to volunteer. If you want to run a personal situation by me to ask me how it can be done, please contact me. I have done things like cut down to ONE T.V. show! Yes, just one (it can be done and I don’t know why I ever thought I’d miss it). And now that I’m attempting to use my internet and smartphone in a way that suits me better, I can see how there really are pockets of time hiding in the oddest spaces. I think the key to finding happiness in the way we spend our time is to be authentic in what we do. What do you love? What are you passionate about? What bugs the heck out of you? (Is it outrageous to you that people in your community don’t have enough food to eat? Go with that.) Chances are, if you do something that fuels your soul, you won’t think of it as ‘giving up your time’ or ‘doing something for free’ – you will instead be open to the amazing gifts that volunteering will bring you.

taslim jaffer writer