Team dynamics

Chapman Story Awards

The Chapman Story Award is an annual story competition open to current and recent participants of the Trek and Reading Week programs. The award recognizes students who have demonstrated meaningful learning and contribution to our local community.

Students who have taken part in the Trek or Reading Week programs for the past year are eligible for prizes of up to $500. Funding is generously provided by an endowment from Kay and Lloyd Chapman.


Application guides and deadlines are emailed to current students from program staff…

2019 Winners

First Place

Kendra Arsadjaja, 4th Year- Arts- Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House (Trek)

One of the reasons I joined the TREK program was my interest in better understanding the Downtown Eastside (DTES) community. As an international student, not knowing any better, I was conditioned to be fearful of the DTES. In my first year, I remember being advised to not roam the area alone as it is filled with the homeless community – very quickly, the word homeless had such negative connotations towards it. As years go by, I wanted to challenge this mindset of mine; I wanted to believe that what I was fed early on is not a fair representation of the entire community.

I remember upon my first arrival at the DTES Neighbourhood House, one of the things that stood out to me were the laminated papers covering the community kitchen’s bright teal wall. It was not the papers per-se that made the moment memorable, rather the words on it that chimed the organization’s values and humbling operating philosophy. One of them beautifully read, “We are activist, reformist, and non-violent, critical of the poverty mentality and its handmaiden charity model. We challenge the clichés visited upon the materially poor. We work from an honour system which assumes the inherent dignity and deservedness of all. We are not a ‘helping’ organization, nor do we ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ people.”

In the months that follow, my understanding towards these words became clearer and clearer. I see them translated into the actions and the work of the staff and my fellow volunteers. I see it in the meaningful relationships cultivated and maintained between the staff and the residents of the DTES, in how the community members are entrusted to help run the programs and workshops, or simply in the conversations they have with one another.

As a community drop-in program volunteer, my responsibilities mainly include preparing and serving food to the community, and cleaning up the community space. Through this, I had the privilege of interacting with some of the residents; after these interactions, my understanding of the values I read on my first day were further solidified. As I go about my days at the Neighbourhood House, I grew to appreciate being around the community; I now know some of them by their names, became familiar with their quirks, their voices, their oatmeal preferences, their ideal places to sit within the space; I was exposed to how knowledgeable they are on different aspects of life; and I realized how resourceful they are. They bring light through their positivity, their personality, and their passion for the organization, which in turn sustains my motivation to get up early on Monday mornings for these past months. More importantly, I no longer fear the area, I learned to humanize the DTES community, I learned to view its residents as equal, I learned to see them as allies, and I learned to work alongside them instead of seeing them as someone who needs ‘helping’.

Second Place

Ivjot Samra, 2nd Year - Science - Pathways to Education (Trek)

    My name is Ivjot and I am an undergraduate student at UBC studying Chemistry, Life Sciences, and Earth & Environmental Sciences. As a volunteer tutor for the Pathways to Education program at Guildford Park Secondary School, I understood that I would be supporting vulnerable high school students in achieving success with their educational endeavors. Although I didn’t realize it at first, a grey cloud of thought remained that desperately needed to be cleared.

    Upon learning about the program, I blindly related my experiences with ones I held during my own high school days. I recalled receiving tutoring support in intermittent time periods and felt that these students were in that same stage of learning and life; able and willing, yet unproven with many opportunities available to them.

    After my first few steps in the airy school gym where the tutoring sessions are setup, I was warmed to know that there was some truth to these feelings. These were teenagers after all, with many years to go, and a valuable pocket of time to figure out what future pathways they would entertain in their lives.

    Over the next few weeks of offering academic help and supportive conversations, I started to notice that despite their high level of commitment, several students were struggling with foundational concepts that prevented them from mastering the homework they were assigned at their grade-levels.

    Cautioned by this, I decided to discuss this concern with my supervisor and was caught off guard to learn of the difficulties these students had encountered in the past. These difficulties included the struggle for some of the students to find a safe living space throughout their lives, which interfered with their education until they made their way to Canada. 

    Understanding these hardships placed much deeper emphasis into what it really means to be “vulnerable” rather than it being just a surface word. Although these students were indeed able, willing, and unproven as I had initially felt, that image was only a fragment of the entire frame. From that moment on, it struck me that the previous circumstances these students had experienced had set them at an undeserved disadvantage in their learning, and their lives.

    Moving forward, it felt as if a much more empathetic and genuine realization had been set in place. I was no longer there as a tutor helping students with their assignments, but rather a tutor with an intent and determination to free these students from their academic setbacks, so that they may have an equal opportunity to pursue pathways to their educational goals beyond high school.

    As I continue to make these regular weekly visits to Guildford Park, I feel myself becoming deeply involved as a tutor and in ways, a mentor. If a student requires support on how to do fractions for example, it is no longer sufficient to simply guide them to the solution. Rather, it is more fitting to equip them with the knowledge to solve it by themselves and be there to support them through every step in the process so that they may not feel discouraged.

    What I take from this experience and hope that anyone reading this can take away is that when it comes to making a positive impact in the world, it is crucial to develop a genuine connection with whatever it is that one hopes to be a part of. Understanding this makes a much more powerful impact possible, in the same sense as being a tutor with an intent compared to just a tutor.

Third Place

Ha Luu, 3rd Year - Arts - Britannia Homework Club (Trek)

I decided to join Trek to bring my academic knowledge and passion of learning to younger students. I walked into the role with a complacent attitude, thinking I would easily excel with my solid tutoring skills.

To my surprise, the Britannia Homework Club is not “just another tutoring place” but an inclusive, encouraging, and enriching micro-community filled with eager learners. When we approach students as tutors we don’t ask “Do you need help with this assignment?”, but “Would you like to work together?” A subtle change in word choice demolishes the presumed hierarchy with unbalanced power and privileges between tutors and students. We are all equal as learners by listening, cooperating and offering each other a hand in need. All judgement is left at the doorstep. A cordial, respectful, and positive atmosphere engulfs everyone in the room.

Initially, I knew little about how these students were from varied household situations. I was paired with a student who frequently missed school and was often distracted in classes. When I first met her, she seemed utterly overwhelmed and discouraged with her overdue assignments. To prepare me for the challenging mission, my supervisor had a private conversation with me beforehand. He told me about her family as a low-income, Indigenous household, where her parents were constantly away for work and absent from her studies. Nobody in the family, including herself, was held accountable for her missing classes. One might immediately conclude: an irresponsible and blameworthy student. But was this judgement fair?

Glancing at the student, I felt as if someone was giving my heart a tight grip. The story was not aimed at criticizing or reprimanding a low-performing student, but a plea for compassion, empathy and support to a struggling teenager in need. Not a single word of complaint or blame was brought up by the supervisor. Complex social issues such as “low-income households”, and “community isolation” no longer sounded like some far-flung academic concepts in a packed sociology lecture. These notions were so vividly materialized in front of my eyes in the form of a bewildered ninth grader girl besides a thick pile of unfinished assignments. This, was the reality. This, was the issue. The challenges she faced couldn’t feel any more real to me. I was once her age with all the pressure from school, from family, from life. She was like me, but without a community by her side to guide the way. Teenage years are an incredibly important formative time where one needs a sustained supportive base from their close circles.

It would be easy to offhand conclude that problematic students are “incurable” for lacking the intellect and work ethic to succeed. Yet, one might not realize that the student’s situation is outside of their control yet has a tangible impact on their studies. To me, all young students are blessed with brimming potentials. I viewed my students as my own brothers and sisters. I talked to them in the language of love and understanding. I saw the reflection of my younger self in them wide-eyed, confused yet passionate and hopeful. They just need an inspirational and relatable role model to leverage their motivation and follow through with ambitions in these tender years.

I was stunned when my student told me what truly “rocks her world” was not my ability to solve a tough Math question in a snap of fingers. It was simply my warm presence and willingness to listen that made her look forward to Homework Club. I was filled with pure joy for the impact I had on her experience.

Third Place

Deea Dev, 1st Year - Science - Cordova House (Reading Week)

I grew up in the small city of Singapore, known as a pristine country – swift and harsh laws have resulted in the practically non-existent issues of homelessness, drug abuse and crime. One can only imagine the shock I received when I first visited the Downtown Eastside (DTES), greeted by a sight so distanced from my sheltered bubble – worn-out tents lined up the rubbish-laced ground of Oppenheimer Park, drug exchanges took place in the corners of my eyes, homeless people crouched on the streets shivering through the harsh cold. My heart went out to this marginalised community. The reading week project gave me the precious opportunity to learn more about the DTES, and amplify stories of its residents.

Cordova House, located in the DTES, offers a stable home and access to support resources for its residents, who are aged 45 years or older. Our UBC team of volunteers engaged with 8 residents one on one, to narrate their personal stories in relation to their community through a photo essay. I was partnered with James*, a bright 50-year-old man who always sported an endearing smile.

Excited to get to know James, I asked, “Is there anything you would like to share about your family?” This prompted a chuckle from him, and a reply with a hint of anguish, “What family?”

The conversation from then on cascaded effortlessly – in just a span of an hour, I became deeply immersed in his life story; I learnt that he was a foster child who never had a proper home, and eventually found his own community (and as he put it, “the closest thing to a family”) in the heart of DTES. He had watched his community transform over the past 40 years, and the passion with which he described its transformation was enthralling.

The next day, we set out to travel through the DTES. With a cane in one hand, and a camera in the other, James walked ahead with spirited steps, leading my clueless self into the wonders of his community. I soon learnt about its rich history through notable eras such as World War II, as he brought me around places like Japan-town, and described the tragic histories and significance of these landmarks. James explained the tragedies that continue to plague DTES today, and mourned those who lost their lives, many who he had personally known, to those very tragedies, like gang violence and drug overdoses.

I came to realise that DTES is so much more than just a neighbourhood with a prevalence of issues; it is a community that symbolises resilience and strength, through its continuous activism and courage to make its voice heard, and support of one another when no one else would.

At the end of it all, James brought me to CRAB Park. He wished to conclude the photo essay with pictures of this beautiful park, as a symbolisation of the hope he harboured for the betterment of his community and a representation of the serenity he felt from visiting the park during difficult times. We ended the journey by sitting in silence, looking out at the skyline and view of the mountains. In that moment, it all felt surreal. I feel blessed to have met James, who was so open to sharing his life stories and teaching me so unbelievably much about the significance of a community. I also learnt about the power of hope and resiliency – despite all that James has been through, he still perseveres and holds faith for a better future. And that drive to keep persevering as he stated, came from the love for the community of people around himself.

*Name has been altered to protect the identity of the resident

Third Place

Nana Abena Adu-Botchway, 4th Year - Arts - UBC Learning Exchange (Trek)

My name is Nana and this is my story. Anytime I talk about my volunteering experience at the UBC Learning Exchange, I refer to it as my ‘blessed mistake’. I remember my first day as a volunteer. I woke up that morning feeling anxious about my decision to volunteer in the Downtown Eastside. As cliché as it might sound, as an international student in Vancouver, I had heard many negative stories about the Downtown Eastside – the drug-use; the sex work; the crime; and even the importance of the ‘key between your fingers’ technique for protection in the event something happened. My initial plan was to volunteer so I could be able to add a few lines to my LinkedIn profile that made me appear versatile and somewhat ‘altruistic’ to potential employers. However, this great plan was thrown out the window. My whole experience and the lessons I learned have surpassed my imagination and volunteering has been the best decision I have made in my four years of university.

One of the major lessons I learned while volunteering is the importance of being non-judgmental. As humans, we tend to subconsciously judge people or places we do not know based on physical appearance or things we might have heard and I must confess I was guilty of this. Often, there were people who walked into the Learning Exchange who looked different from what I was used to seeing around me on Campus. I did not exactly see the Herschel bags, the expensive Blundstone boots, or the ridiculously priced AirPods, which to me screams privilege and opportunity. Nonetheless, my mind was constantly blown away every time I heard the soothing guitar/piano songs anytime I walked into the Learning Exchange or the time I was read a beautiful and inspiring poem written by one of the local residents. As time went on, I learnt to put away any prejudiced views I had and as a result, I started to appreciate not only the Learning Exchange but also the Downtown Eastside as a community whose art and diversity enriches the city.

Moreover, the Learning Exchange was not just a place where the local residents of the Downtown Eastside went for English Conversation Programs or Computer Workshops. It was a place where people felt included in a community. As an immigrant in Canada, I fully understand the need for community and the Learning Exchange was that and more. On the days when I volunteered, I often saw familiar faces that usually sat together in the drop-in area to talk and drink coffee as they waited for their turn to use the computers. I observed the genuine laughter, kindness and understanding they had for each other. As someone who moved to a whole new continent without family, I appreciate the slightest opportunity to create a family and the Learning Exchange was helpful. I always looked forward to the days I volunteered when my supervisor asked about my day or the extremely difficult assignment I told her about, or even telling me how helpful I was. Gradually the Learning Exchange became a safe place for me where I could support people and feel immense joy and satisfaction.

I honestly appreciate my experience at the Learning Exchange. I can write for hours about the shortcuts I mastered on Microsoft Word and Excel or my exemplary cutting or shredding skills but what I cherish the most are the important life lessons that I now employ in my daily activities. Before volunteering, I was unsure what I wanted to do after graduating in May but now I am delighted by any volunteering experience that aims to empower individuals and communities.

2018 Winners

This year, we have two 3rd place winners! 

First Place

Linda Wu, 1st Year - Arts - Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House (Trek)

There is a mural at the Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House that caught my eyes the day I began my placement. Vibrantly decorated with drawings of flowers and animals and boldly displaying the word “community”, the mural left a vivid streak of colour in my otherwise muddled memories. While it was no more than a lingering impression back then, by the time I left my last volunteering session at Frog Hollow, it has come to hold a much greater significance.

Brimming with fresh ambition and determination, I joined Trek with the singular goal of enriching my university education with the community-based learning that Trek promises. When I was assigned to Frog Hollow, I saw the neighbourhood house as a research site where I could study the academic concepts I learned in class on a societal platform. While my time at Frog Hollow did provide that, the mindset I held presented a problem.

By viewing Frog Hollow as a location to facilitate my self-centered pursuit for knowledge, I had erected a wall in my mind between myself and the members of the organization. My sole objective of analyzing the neighbourhood house made me a bystander rather an active participant. My involvement was shallow, and consequently, so was my understanding. Fortunately, such arrogant perception was quickly eroded.  

The shift in my perception didn’t occur from a sudden epiphany generated by a single pivotal moment. Instead, it was a gradual process driven by Frog Hollow’s consistent emphasis on the importance of community and the way their behaviour exemplified their mission statement. Thanks to the collective actions of both staff and members, Frog Hollow, in my memories, was perpetually permeated by a sense of inclusivity. A particularly distinct memory was my volunteer supervisor inviting me into her office on my first day as if I had been with the organization for years rather than mere minutes. In the months that followed, instead of giving me orders and designating my responsibilities, members of Frog Hollow actively involved me in the planning process of activities and respected my opinions. As I became more and more involved, my understanding of community-based learning took on a different form.

While Frog Hollow did provide a multidimensional learning environment that classroom settings could not offer, its greatest contribution towards my education is undoubtedly its reminder for why I learn. The more integrated I became within the folds of Frog Hollow’s dynamic, the clearer I came to see the interconnected nature of society. Our actions and identities are all components of a greater canvas. I don’t learn so I could stay aloof from society in order to observe and produce research papers. I learn so I could add my own paint strokes to the world and make it more vibrant.

At one point during my time with Frog Hollow, in a passing comment, my supervisor told me that the colourful mural was drawn by youths who frequent the organization. My immediate reaction was disbelief for I had automatically assumed that an artwork of such calibre must have been done by professionals. However, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Of course it was them. Of course they were capable. I have little doubt that individually the youths were amazing people, but collectively, their combined skills and efforts could accomplish wonders. Moving forward, I hope to carry the vibrancy of that mural with me and all the volume it speaks for the importance of community. One day, perhaps through my studies or perhaps through other means, I can contribute my own colours.  

Second Place

Clara Chang, 3rd Year - Arts - Dr. Peter Centre (Trek)

As an undergraduate Human Geography major and Sociology minor at UBC, I have always been interested in the topic of social inequality. In several of my sociology classes this year, such as a course on diversity in family forms and an introductory course on the topic of social inequality, I learned about the social disability model. At the time, I found this knowledge interesting but I filed it away in my brain for later. It is through my lived experience of volunteering that I truly shifted my perspective and began to understand the importance of this social disability model.

Throughout my time as a residence program volunteer at the Dr. Peter Centre, I got to know several residents, including one who happens to use a wheelchair. One day, this resident asked if I would be willing to go to for a walk to the corner store with them. As this occurred towards the beginning of my time volunteering at the centre, it was one of my first times handling a wheelchair and I was a little nervous as a result. The corner store was only a few blocks away from the centre, which is located downtown, and it was a beautiful sunny day. I thought to myself: do not worry, this will not be too hard. As we made our way down the block, I quickly realized that it was really tricky! Even when the sidewalks seemed smooth to me, the chair would get caught on small cracks in the pavement or on small inclines. It really made me appreciate just how frustrating an experience it can be to use a wheelchair with regards to infrastructure and mobility. The resident was very patient and did their best to offer advice which I greatly appreciated. Once we got to the corner store, it turned out that the door was too narrow for the wheelchair to go through. As a result, I ended up having to buy the lighter for the resident (with their own money of course) because they could not do so themselves. Again it highlighted for me just how important access is because of how inaccessible certain places are due to a building’s or a location’s infrastructure. In that moment I was frustrated. I was frustrated at how difficult it was to manoeuvre the wheelchair. I was frustrated at how much extra work had to go into doing an everyday task. But as I sat with this frustration and thought about it more and more, I started to make connections with the social disability model I had studied in my sociology courses. It was in this moment that I had a shift in my understanding of how I and our society views disability. I began to understand just how important a shift from the medical model to the social disability model is.

Although my volunteer placement was at a centre for HIV and Aids, I learned so much about all types of communities and people. I learned that simply learning about something in a classroom setting is not enough. To truly understand it, you need to experience it in the real world, even if it is only experiencing a small part of it. I thought I understood the social disability model when I learned about it in class, but it took this experience to truly make me understand. The shift I experienced in understanding myself and our society was one of the most valuable outcomes of my time volunteering as part of the TREK program.

Third Place

Madhumita Varma, 4th Year - Arts - Cordova House at Bloom Group (Reading Week)

When I decided to volunteer at Cordova House this Reading Break, I did not expect to connect so well with someone from a vastly different world from mine. Cordova House is a great supportive housing project by the Bloom Group, in which seniors who struggle with finding affordable housing in Vancouver are taken care of well. During the project, I was paired with a residential school survivor. When I was told that we were to take pictures around the neighbourhood of people, places or things that are meaningful to our partner, I was afraid I might say or do something that might trigger or offend him. However, he instantly lightened up the mood with his jokes before he started sharing his stories.

Day-1 involved walking along East Hastings (streets I had always avoided out of stigma), having a local resident use my expensive DSLR camera, and realising that he does a much better job of handling it, capturing the beauty in things my west-side eyes always overlooked. He often pointed at North Vancouver and mentioned how few buildings there were when he was young. He often mentioned seeing photos of Vancouver from the early 1900s in his favourite book. Later in the day, I was informed that he had bought that book seven months prior to Reading Week, eagerly waiting to share it with another soul.

It was evident that he had a strong connection with his land. Upon returning to the house, he retrieved his book and showed me his favourite pictures of Vancouver, sharing a few more stories from his childhood. As he recounted his mother’s experience confined in a reserve, his attempts to escape from a residential school, and how many times he was beaten in school for saying ‘hello’ in his language, it occurred to me that the only thing distinguishing him from me at that point was how lucky I was for being born in a different time and place. It was at that point that I realised, that coming from a place that had been colonised, it could have very easily been me sharing such stories. It made me more grateful to the freedom fighters in India who had liberated my country. No matter how harrowing his experiences were, I made sure not to break down in tears in front of him. I did not want him to stop sharing his stories, for had he stopped, I would not have discovered myself, my own history, and what could have been.

Day-2 was poster-making day. Our posters consisted of the pictures our partners took. The following morning, I couldn’t help my tears as I saw him draw indigenous art for his poster, and I learned that as a child he was punished brutally for attempting to embrace his artistic talent. I watched patiently as he did his younger-self some justice at the age of 63. We spent the rest of the day bonding in silence. At the end, he returned to his room with a well-appreciated poster, and hopefully with the satisfaction of having had someone listen to the story of his life. Meanwhile, I walked out of there feeling comfortable in a place I had feared all these years, humbled, better informed, empathetic, and grateful. If there is one piece of advice that kept me going, it is that listening to someone whom you think is vastly different from you not only helps you understand them, but it helps you discover a part of yourself that you never knew. As we wrapped up, he said he wanted to draw a picture.

Third Place

Veronica Ciastko, 4th Year - Arts - Writer's Exchange (Trek)

My name is Veronica Ciastko and for the last three years I have volunteered with the Writer’s Exchange through UBC’s TREK program. I’ve spent all three years located at Queen Alexandra elementary working with kids grades 1-3. This year, I felt especially grateful for the strong and lasting relationships I’ve built in the community. It has taken time to build relationships with the many students and families I serve as well as my supervisors and co-volunteers at the Writer’s Exchange. This is also my third year living in Vancouver, after moving here from the US. This year is the first year that I have felt fully at home in Vancouver. I have developed a community of friends, mentors, and connections here. I feel confident that these two developments—strong relationships with the kids I’m serving through Writer’s Exchange, and strong relationships with Vancouver and the people in it—are deeply connected.

Every Thursday, I head to Queen Alexandra. The school is a 10 minute walk from my house. I feel really grateful to be living in the community I volunteer in, because I feel even more deeply connected to and knowledgeable about the issues that the Writer’s Exchange focuses on: poverty, systemic inequality, and unstable access to enriching after school activities, especially for youth struggling with reading and writing. As I walk through my neighborhood, I see the people and sights that are familiar to me and which remind me that Vancouver is a place that I love. One of the sights that fills me with love and familiarity is QA, a big yellow brick building on a bustling street.

When I get to QA, I greet the kids and we have snack time, which is my favorite part of the day. This is when I get to chat with all of the kids and hear about their week since I last saw them. This time is important on multiple levels; we provide the kids with a nutritious meal and we also show them that we—the adult volunteers—are consistently present for them. This is the time that real relationships are built.

Over the course of three years of snack time, I’ve learned so much about the kids and developed lots of inside jokes and funny stories with them. The ease I now feel around the kids mirrors the ease I feel in Vancouver as a whole. I am so grateful for this ease. I am grateful that the kids at the Writer’s Exchange have let me into their lives to make reading and writing fun, and I am grateful for the city of Vancouver and the land it sits on for becoming my home and nurturing me.

When we get to reading and writing time I am able to rely on the strength of the relationships I’ve built with the kids to teach writing projects in a fun and engaging way. I’ve been taught that the best way to work with kids is with a “warm-strict” attitude. Meaning: hold high expectations but always be fair and kind. This “warm-strict” attitude is only possible when there’s a foundation of trust and care in the relationship. For some of the more “difficult” students, it has taken me three years to cultivate this relationship. This year, I felt the benefits of the hard work I had put into relationship building. Students trust me, want to learn when they’re with me, and feel safe and happy around me.

This, in turn, is how I feel about Vancouver. And the Writer’s Exchange has become more than simply “volunteering” to me. It is one of the columns that supports the feeling that Vancouver is truly home.

2017 Winners

First Place

Rachel Blundon, 3rd year - Food, Nutrition, & Health - YWCA Crabtree Corner (Trek)

Upon entering into the UBC Trek program in September, I had no idea as to what my journey would be like, and no expectations for it. I came in with an open mind, willing and ready to do good work beyond the bounds of the UBC “bubble”. I thought that I (prepare yourself for some indiscriminate ego boosting) could go out into the community and with my skills, knowledge, and experience contribute in a meaningful way, somehow, somewhere. And oh, how quickly did this mentality dissipate upon starting my placement.

I learned from my placement at CTC humility and grace—virtues that cannot be learned from a journal article or book and rarely taught in academia, but may only, truly, be conceived with sustained practice. Although nervous walking into my placement, I felt confident in my knowledge base on such discipline-specific concepts as food (in)security, food justice, and food sovereignty. You got this, I thought to myself.

Only, I didn’t really.

These academic concepts painted a picture of broad strokes over the lives of complicated individuals. The first time I had to turn a single mother away from financial aid for the Presents of Peace program put on at Christmas because she was in the ballpark of $60 per paycheck over the minimum to support herself and her two children, was heart-wrenching. Watching her shed a few tears over the fact that she wouldn’t be able to put on a good Christmas morning filled with a few presents for her children, or a decent Christmas dinner, was heart wrenching. And then, she surprised me, and called me out on my position in this organization, A volunteer, from UBC, a student, who are you to tell me I don’t qualify? What do you know. I want to speak to someone who actually works here, get me the head of the program. And so I did, half hoping I was wrong in my analysis, so that she could get her aid, half hoping my supervisor would confirm that my conclusion was in the right. But as I waited outside the office, listening to my supervisor tell this woman what I had also told her, it dawned on me, that she wasn’t wrong. Who was I, what gave me the right?

And there I go, down the rabbit-hole of privilege.

I had known before my placement that I was a fairly privileged person, but I didn’t see it, I wasn’t confronted with it. I was already privileged to got to an amazing post-secondary university, and then this privilege lead me to the privilege experienced in my placement: I automatically stepped into a position of power to exclude and include certain individuals from financial resources. There was no earning this position, I merely showed up and impacted the lives of CTC clients. This interaction, the first of its kind but certainly not the last in my placement, taught me humility and grace. To respect not only my place in the world, but that of others, and to see that much of what has lead me to where I am, or where that single mother is, is largely pre-determined and out of our control. This understanding, and these virtues, will be carried forward for the rest of my life.

Second Place

Rachel Holmes, 5th year - Arts - Dr. Peter Center (Trek)

Searching through my memory for highlights, I realize that my experience at the Dr. Peter Center wasn’t about that at all. It wasn’t about my high point, my success. I didn’t do this to feel alive, or excited. For those I supported, being a resident at the Dr. Peter Center means that you have received a serious diagnosis and have struggled with treatment. They take life as it comes, one day at a time. Expecting volunteering there to be about some illuminating gratification doesn’t parallel with the reality that these people are living with every day. My involvement there was for them, not me; it wasn’t flashy, but it was stable. It was to offer support, in whatever medium it needed to be for that person. What I’m taking away, therefore, is more than a high point where I felt like I really made a tangible impact. I’ve learned that life so often is about getting through the day, finding routine, and finding the calm in it all. I’ve discovered that satisfaction can come quietly and unassumingly. Volunteering at the Dr. Peter Center demonstrated that no matter your background, you must be humble in coexisting with others. That contentment can be found in conversation and shared community.

More than that, coming in every Monday has allowed me to find myself knowing people. It’s humanizing. I think that might be the most invaluable part of Trek: building those relationships and having the understanding that there is at least one more person out there that you know, really know. It was apparent when I first came in that ‘D’ had grown tired of the revolving door of volunteers and staff. As I prompted conversation, he used the automatic script that he had so efficiently honed over the years of small talk. Lucky for me, it turns out D loves Scrabble. I’m talking, carved-his-name-into-the-tiny-wooden-holder loves Scrabble. The first time we played we were mostly silent, but every once in awhile he would let out a little bit more about himself. All the stories, the beliefs, the advice - what you hope to hear from a person - all of it came, just with time. Although I came close a couple times, I never beat him in a game.

Then there were some moments that were scary, too. As we played one night, I noticed his eyes squinting shut. “I’m waiting for the pain to pass,” he whispered. Throughout decades of health problems, D had grown accustomed to experiencing pain. Over the past months however, I had learned that he has a history of heart attacks and keeps nitroglycerine spray close as a result. Asking him where the pain was coming from, he was able to point out the location in his chest. When the nurse took his vitals, his pressure was 220/130 and beating at 200 bpm. As soon as the spray was administered, his heart rate and blood pressure began to return to normal levels. This event brought me closer to understanding the gravity of the pain he experiences on a daily basis: D had tried to wait out a heart-attack. Moments like these make me grateful simply for having gotten to know him.

My takeaway message about Trek is to do it authentically. In the sobering reality that others face is somewhere you may find meaning. Come into it prepared to learn about them and the lessons that they bear, whether they fit your pre-existing mental frameworks or not. You may come out the other side knowing not just more about them, but yourself.

Third Place

Tisha Dasgupta, 3rd year - Science - YWCA Crabtree Corner (Trek)

As a student going into my third year in the faculty of Science, I needed to boost up my resume. Add something shiny to it, that would make me stand out in the rat race that is medical school. A time commitment of a few hours a week and some assignments, Trek would be easily completed and would barely even affect my life. Or so I thought. What I didn’t anticipate at that time was the profound change that the program would have on me, how I see the world and my treatment of others.

Being an international student, I’ve never had any reason to visit the Downtown Eastside. My local friends had told me that it was a ‘sketchy’ neighborhood and my mind had painted up a vivid picture of drug dealers and the homeless huddled on the sidewalks. I’d been to the flashy Gastown many times of course, but only so far as Abbott Street. Beyond that, was an unknown and dangerous abyss to me. So, when I was assigned to my placement at YWCA Crabtree Corner, at the heart of the DTES, you can imagine my trepidation. But, I like to think of myself as a daring person, not afraid to try new things. So, one sunny Saturday morning in October, as I made my way downtown on a bus, my thoughts were a blur of equal parts apprehension and excitement.

As I got to Crabtree Corner and met with the program coordinators, I was told that the Saturday Family program was for single mothers and children, and gave them an opportunity to de-stress and chat with other mothers like themselves. According to my preconceived notions, patrons of community centers like Crabtree had to be destitute and desperate. So, an hour later, when some of the families began to pour in, I was quite taken by surprise. They were all extremely well dressed, polite and what stood out to me most of all is that they all seemed happy. Truly, genuinely happy with a huge smile gracing every one of their faces. Over the next few months, I got to know each one of them a little better. I began to be loved amongst the children and was entrusted by the moms with their family pasts. They were people from so many different parts of the world, speaking so many different languages and practicing many different cultures. But they were all united in the fact that wanted to be at Crabtree Corner on a Saturday morning getting a bite to eat with their friends. And I realized that is something so quintessentially normal.

Exposure is something each and every one of us should get, in whichever form that may be. Simply by being at my placement I learnt so much more about the community, about the social issues they face, and the good and bad about DTES. I’m a firm believer that one cannot learn such things in a classroom, you must be immersed in the community. And that is why I believe programs such as Trek are vital. For us students today, when it is so easy to hide behind our iPhones, programs like this put us out there and makes us think beyond the classroom lecture, to delve deeper. From the past two terms with Trek, the common phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ has taken a whole new meaning for me.  I have learnt to actually listen, beyond the first impressions and the white noise. And I will carry that with me for the rest of my life.

2016 winners

First Place

Margaret Miland, 3rd year, UBC Learning Exchange (Trek)

The moment when marker and paper met as I created my first graphic recording during the UBC Learning Exchange Open House was when all of my passions converged. It was a point of extreme clarity in my TREK experience that spilled over into my personal life, changing my perspective on who I am as a person. I transferred to UBC hoping to reignite my sense of creativity that had slowly been exhausted. Knowing that the best way to do this was to surround myself with endless possibilities, I not only decided to say “yes,” but to also question how my assets could benefit my new community. Little did I know that I would be helped with my personal journey just as much as my presence in my TREK placement ended up impacting the lives of the patrons who spend time at the Learning Exchange.

I will never forget what Student Learning Coordinator, Katie Forman, told me on my tour of the Learning Exchange: This was a place where the staff’s presence is merely to facilitate the engagement of every person who walks through the door and recognize the assets they bring to this community. For most people who visit the Downtown Eastside it is seen as “a rough neighborhood in Vancouver” and a place to avoid. Instead of a red flag that would call for deviation, I was intrigued and began to wonder why there was such an extreme difference in atmosphere among Vancouver neighborhoods. What I found was a culturally rich, unique, and close-knit community. Although my initial work at the Learning Exchange was to create new lesson plans for learners, I found most of my time being spent soaking up life stories and opinions of the residents of the Downtown Eastside. As time went on, I discovered firsthand what it was like to experience a true learning exchange.

On the day of the open house, I was asked to try my hand at graphically recording a session on apps that can help ESL learners. Seeing the listeners make connections based on the presentation and my drawings, I was encouraged to record other events throughout the day. I discovered that my skills as a connector, listener, artist, and encourager were allowing the patrons to engage more freely. My graphic recordings were helpful for those who did not speak fluently because they included key words, and the pictures proved to be universally understood. By the end of the day I had been approached by so many people asking about this newfound skill and if I could teach them. I now have the opportunity to do so through the Learning Exchange’s conference this May.

As my time as a TREK student volunteer was coming to a close, there was a mutual effort to find ways for me to remain connected to the Learning Exchange. Finding the space as much of a centre for the patrons as it was for me to feel at home with myself, I ended up accepting a summer work learn position at the Learning Exchange as a drop-in assistant. Words cannot describe how it feels as a new member to Vancouver to be so readily accepted by such a unique community as the Learning Exchange.

I am so proud to have participated in the TREK program and to have learned so much about myself through the whole process. My experience at UBC has a more guided path and my goal of understanding the diversity present in Vancouver that is not always present on campus was met one-hundred times over. 

Second Place

Flora Xiao Meng Zhu, 4th year, Dr. Peter Centre for HIV and AIDS (Trek)

“Thank you for the bird.”

I looked up from behind the white counter from where I stood; it took me a second to realize he was talking about the roast chicken leg we served for lunch. “You’re welcome,” I said briefly as I turned around, grabbed two 150mL containers of 2% milk and replaced the ones that the attendees took for lunch. Lined with rows of concentrated juice, milk and dessert, the countertop was more crowded than Metrotown on Boxing Day.  And despite our best efforts to maintain a somewhat orderly fashion along the dessert and drinks line, between the bustling attendees and our four hands, we were not successful.

“Can I have a chai tea?”

“Can I have an orange juice?”

“We are out of coffee!”

“Of course,” I said as I pried a bag of chai tea out of its box, pressed the juice dispenser to shoot out orange liquid into a plastic cup and took hold of the now empty 42-cup coffee dispensing urn. “Just one minute, let me just change this” and heaved over a 10lb urn of freshly brewed coffee to the attendees.

Every Sunday for the past five months, I volunteered at the Dr. Peter’s Centre for HIV/AIDS and helped them prepare and serve food to the participants that come by. As a community, the attendees, the volunteers and the workers are the ones who drive me to be excited about this cause. They are the ones that give this program hope and make me feel alive.

No matter rain or shine, I look forward to helping out at the Centre. Although not intellectually stimulating, handing out desserts, lining up drinks and emptying out coffee grinds have become emotionally and spiritually uplifting tasks for me. Personally, there is no singular moment that makes me feel more involved with the Centre because every moment that I am there, I feel like I am contributing to this intricate web of social balance.

There are many misconceptions regarding homelessness, drug abuse and people suffering from HIV/AIDS.  There is a belief that the ugliness of these under-privileged individuals’ issues are self-brought and contagious; a fear that the mistakes that these people made will rub off against us if we spend too much time with them. A fear that their bad habits and their lives’ adversities will plague us with the infection of misfortune, and a fear that their unpleasantness will destroy our pleasantness in the perfect life that we have sculpted for ourselves. When unfortunately, there is a blackout towards the hidden systemic issues within our society. A blanket of secrecy and chasm of issues feed and mask this epidemic and we only graze the surface of it by being afraid.

I used to think I was a big hypocrite. After I finished my shift, on my way to the bus stop, I would see several homeless men asking for change, and more often than not, I would pass them without giving them a second glance. But as my time with the Centre progressed, my attitude towards these men evolved. And now as I pass them on the street, I see them as colourful human beings, full of stories and experiences, and hope to sit down and talk with them one day.

When people think about making the world a better place, often times they don’t think of the small changes they can make in their community. Philanthropic involvement does not necessarily mean something big, sometimes it starts with a small shift in mindset and perspective. Sometimes it is simply seeing a chicken as a bird. 

Diane Keyes, 1st year, YWCA Crabtree Corner (Trek)

I still remember the first time East Hastings and I met. It was a classic Vancouver afternoon where you couldn’t make out one cloud from the next – the entire sky was a solid mass of white. I can’t recall where we were going or where we were coming from, but what I did remember was the streets. I was sitting in the car with my mother driving down East Hastings. It was fall and I was probably about nine years old. ‘Roll up your window,’ my mother told me as she locked the doors, ‘and look outside.’ I turned my head to the right. There were throngs of people milling about; several were crossing the street seemingly ignorant of the moving cars and buses, others sat slumped against the walls of the tall buildings, while others still waved their arms wildly in the air, talking loudly. I remember most of them wearing old oversized hooded coats coloured in beige, grey, or black. Now, whether it was just the greyness of the day or the reality I saw before me which made the scene seem so colourless, I do not know. What I do know, though, is the shock, fear, and confusion I felt. ‘This is the kind of life that some people live,’ my mother said to me, ‘it’s very different.’ And so East Hastings was tucked away in the back of my mind and labelled with bright neon signs exclaiming ‘danger – do not enter.’ It was with this memory in mind that I nervously sat on the bus one sunny Saturday morning in early winter headed straight to the heart of the Downtown Eastside. I was on my way to Crabtree Corner.

One of the anthropology courses I’m taking this term is An Introduction to Contemporary Social Problems and looks at the connection between capitalism (or free market society) and addiction. It explains how capitalism, because of the values that it holds of individualism, competition, and exponential growth, undermines some fundamental human psychosocial needs, which include the need for community, sense of belonging, life-purpose, and meaning. The Theory of Dislocation by Bruce K. Alexander outlines this and shows how, when people are unable to meet these needs, they develop addictions which are essentially adaptive substitutes for these needs. Coincidentally, the Vancouver Downtown Eastside stood as a case study for this theory – the neighbourhood where I would complete my TREK placement. Throughout our studies we debunked several myths which cloud the concept of addiction, including the conception that people who are addicted are weak of character and moral and that addiction was their choice.

What was extremely powerful was witnessing how, each time I went down East Hastings after another week of class, something in me had shifted. There was a sense of opening and felt as though I could literally see more, and not only that, but what I saw was colourful. Things are no longer grey, black, and beige, for there is a certain colourfulness that emerges when you finally understand the reason behind why things are the way they are, and there is a beauty to this. This is what my class has given me, and what I realize education is for. Education is so that we may be able to look at world around us and no longer simply see, but understand. To reach this, however, we must go out and meet the world, which is why I believe academic education is not enough on its own, and why programs like TREK are essential.

Third Place

Sharon Shamuyarira, 1st year, 411 Seniors and Pianos on the Street (Reading Week)

As a first year Zimbabwean student studying Commerce at UBC, I have learnt the importance of making whatever you do authentically yours, by letting it echo your values. However, this is only possible when you build connections that foster openness, that is, when you feel at home.

I had been in Canada for nearly five months and a part of me still didn’t feel in “sync” with the local community. It’s hard to describe, but easy to realize when you feel out of place. Taking part in the Reading Week Project was my final attempt to try and immerse myself in the culture. I felt lost but hopeful, isolated but surrounded. Naturally, I felt no need to hold back on these emotions as I wrote a letter to my future self at the kick-off event.  I had been assigned to 411 Seniors in partnership with Pianos on the Street, our main task was to design and paint a piano in three days.  Having played in an orchestra, I have always been a fan of classical music so I was thrilled to be part of a creative music project. Nonetheless, my biggest worry was whether I would add any real artistic value to it.

I remember the first brainstorming “session”, nearly twenty minutes into it, we barely had anything concrete. A part of me wondered if the whole idea of the project wasn’t rather far-fetched.  From flags, to tiny musical instruments, to First Nation quotes, the ideas kept coming while the clock kept ticking.  

I looked at the paper with all the suggestions and it hit me then: Diversity was the key. We had all come to UBC from diverse backgrounds, the seniors had distinct narratives, and music had the unique nature of bringing us all together. So the old cliché “Unity in diversity” resonated with us. We divided the piano in to different parts, numbering them one through seven. Each of us volunteered to be responsible for a specific part. Whitney and I were responsible for the back of the piano, she suggested we have different quotes painted by all the volunteers and the seniors depicting what music meant to them. As I write this, I remember how excited I was to come up with a sketch. All my fears of my non-existent creative prowess had disappeared.  I had written in the letter with some incredible foresight, “This is what I find exciting, you do not know what lies ahead.”

Those words were further reiterated when I met one of the 411 seniors. She had recently relocated from South Africa and was thrilled to meet a friend from a neighbouring country. We talked about being back home drinking rooibos tea and giggled at funny Canadian expressions like “yeah, yeah, yeah”, talking to her made me realize we had been experiencing similar internal conflicts. Eventually she demonstrated the power of vulnerability when she shared how she had recently lost her husband.  Visiting Canada, to her was an opportunity to heal and start living again. I asked her to sign one of the postcards I had designed on the back of the piano , and  though adamant at first, after some arm twisting she eventually signed “Music powers emotions”.

Her words still resonate with me. Being part of the Reading Week Project allowed me to feel something I had not felt since I left home. I had embarked on a three-day journey with all these strangers, and together, we had committed to representing each of our stories on that piano.  Most of all, being there felt natural, it felt like home.

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