Leaders Inspiring Change

by Betty Zhang, Volunteer Group Facilitator

A glimpse of one of our Volunteer Fairs, signing up 300 students to volunteer with our weekly groups.

At an early age, I noticed that our society sees “youth” as deviants causing disruption rather than leaders inspiring change. Beginning in high school, I tried to challenge this notion by starting a youth volunteer group to tend the community garden, which provides fresh produce to impoverished families in our city.

Upon coming to University, I began volunteering with Student Open Circles as a tutor for new youth immigrants and was exposed to the vulnerability of young refugees. I was deeply moved as I got to know a young girl who had spent over seven years at a refugee camp in Lebanon with limited access to education and role models. Now, in the Canadian school system, she not only struggled with English Literacy, but also with believing in her ability to achieve her ambitions. I realized that even more than textbooks, she needed a mentor to help her believe in herself. Although I had limited resources, I tried to connect her to social services to support her education and career goals. I saw her smile when she achieved 80% on her math test after working through a hundred algebra problems together the week before. I lifted her spirits with a simple smile when she faced small obstacles in reaching her goals. I had the privilege of watching her grow every week while volunteering.

Betty (2nd from left) with her weekly volunteer group at the Pathway to Education Program

I would not have been equipped with the skills to be a positive and motivating mentor without the mentorship I received from my Student Open Circles facilitators. My facilitators led reflections with our group each week, which helped me contextualize the impact of our work in the community and inspired my continuing commitment. Through their guidance, I realized that by helping students improve their literacy skills, we are empowering youth with new opportunities and tools to protect their health and wellbeing. The supportive environment of my volunteer group helped me discover my passion for youth mentorship. My facilitators challenged and inspired me to start an ongoing collaboration between the Hamilton Police and Sir John A Macdonald High School in Hamilton’s inner city to host a basketball tournament that would allow youths to personally meet the police officers who protect our community. The game provided a setting and opportunity for officers to model peaceful and respectful behaviour for youths.

From a Board Member

"I am proud to serve as Chair of the Board of Student Open Circles, an organization that does an amazing job at connecting students with volunteer opportunities in the community, as well as providing a safe space for students to explore their values and directions in life.  A great initiative for positive mental health!" (Dr. Karen Trollope-Kumar)

In my third year of volunteering with Student Open Circles, I had the opportunity to facilitate an extremely engaged, nurturing, and diverse weekly volunteer group to support the Pathways to Education Program at the North Hamilton Community Center. The Pathways program provides academic, financial, and one-on-one support to help at-risk youth graduate from high school and pursue postsecondary opportunities.

I am humbled by the opportunity to empower youths through education and mentorship under the guidance and support of Student Open Circles. I am grateful for the generous support of our community and the exceptional leadership of Jeff, Marybeth, and our intern to make these wonderful opportunities available for McMaster students.