After a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend with my family in Victoria (British Columbia), I said my farewells and watched them hop the ferry back to the mainland - leaving just Archie and I behind. I was continuing on to complete the last leg of my cross-Canada volunteer journey and had plans to stick around Vancouver Island to explore. My next volunteer stop was at the Rock Bay Landing Shelter in Victoria, British Columbia.
The Rock Bay Landing shelter is an extension of the Cool Aid Society, which is a non-profit organization that strives to "provide holistic shelter, housing, and community health services to adults experiencing marginalization in the Victoria area". The Cool Aid Society began back in 1968 when a "Cool Aid Hostel" (emergency shelter) was established for transient youth travelling the country. Now they run 4 shelters in Victoria, BC - Rock Bay Landing is their most recent addition.
I arrived to RBL on a beautiful sunny day in October and was completely surprised to find such a modern, clean, green (solar panels!) and safe space. To be completely honest, I strolled by the building twice just to be 100% sure I wasn't lost. This was unlike any shelter that I had seen before. I later learned that the reason why RBL was so impressive was because it only opened on November 3rd, 2010 and had been a major (and necessary) undertaking for the organization.
Facts about Rock Bay Landing
- 84 permanent shelter beds
- 23 units of transitional housing
- 2 units of family shelter (only one in Victoria)
- 40 shelter mat spaces, available for overflow
- Advanced security / safety features for staff and clients
- Day storage, cart accommodation
- Laundry, showers, clothing, dining facilities, workshops
- Volunteer opportunities for clients
It's a pretty spectacular building that also hosts equally spectacular staff and volunteers. I was welcomed to RBL by Sarah Hook, the Volunteer Coordinator, and immediately felt my little fears melt away. What a gem! When she was taking me on the initial tour of RBL - laundry, showers, courtyard, activity room, offices, day storage, clothing 'store', kitchen, classrooms, transitional rooms, etc - it was clear that I wasn't the only one who thought she was gem-like. It was nice to see some clients' interactions with staff, and appreciation for the work that they put in on a daily basis. After spending a few days volunteering at RBL, I was more understanding of the realities (& struggles) that the staff do face. It's not an easy task to keep the shelter running so smoothly.
Not an easy task at all.
As a volunteer, some of my roles were to sort donations for the shelter 'store' (clients are able to take a limited amount of clean clothing for themselves), do shower sign-in/out (& hand out towels/toiletries), prepare lunch and dinner services (with the creative head-Chef's who make delicious & nutritious meals with limited resources), serve meals to the clients, assist with an arts workshop, and complete room-checks (clients have to leave their rooms during the day for janitorial staff) ... but my favourite part of the experience was engaging with the clients.
I learned a lot about the stigmas surrounding people who use services provided by the Cool Aid Society. I learned that there are families living there, teenagers, adults, mothers, seniors, addicts, full-time employees, immigrants, couples, victims, runaways, volunteers, people with mental health issues, and everyone else in between. I learned that these clients love art, hockey teams, cooking, playing soccer, going to the movies, their hometowns, holiday celebrations and fireworks. I learned that they are educated, plan to get educated and have dreams just like the rest of us.
I learned that the people at Rock Bay Landing are exactly like you and I.
They are human, after all.
At the end of my time with Rock Bay Landing, I concluded that although it's a 24-hr co-ed shelter space, it looks and feels more like a University residence. This is a really great thing, in my opinion. It's a home - a place for memories, tears, struggles, overcoming obstacles, sharing meals, friends, family, motivation, successes and hope.
Everyone needs a place to call home, even if it's only a short-term fix.
My experience at RBL reminded me of how lucky I am as an individual, and how lucky we (as Canadians) are to have dedicated staff/volunteers who work so, so hard to offer support to those who really need it. I sincerely hope that one day RBL is no longer necessary, but until that day, I am grateful to know that the Cool Aid Society is there.
For more information on the Cool Aid Society, click here ...and if you're in the Victoria area, I encourage you to check-out their Christmas initiative "homeless partners".