Ron Birch, who represents North Okanagan Youth and Family Services on the Board Voice Board of Directors, recalls his introduction to social services as occurring when he responded to an article in his local paper about a program for the street clinic in his community of Vernon. They were asking for donations to support the program, and when he and his wife took their contributions in to the office, he found himself asking if they needed volunteers.
Of course they did. And, as he puts it, he had no idea what he was getting into. He worked in a street clinic on Fridays giving out small food packages, and some of his interactions were way out of his comfort zone.
Ron readily admits that prior to his involvement with the street clinic, he was a proponent of former Premier Bill Vander Zalm’s “golden shovel” theory; he believed everyone could and should be working at some job and that anyone who wasn’t was simply slacking off. He says his wife was always a “pushover” for these people, but he took a much harder position himself.
However, as he got to know some of the people using the clinic, he realized that they had problems and issues in their lives that he had never imagined. He encountered addictions, mental illness, family disintegration, violence – issues that he came to understand could and did interfere with an individual’s ability to find and maintain employment.
And when one of the women he had gotten to know overdosed and died, and two of the clients were murdered, he just knew he needed to be there.
Within a short period of time, he came to realize that he was getting more out of his involvement than the people he was helping. After the clinic no longer had a need for volunteers, he and a fellow volunteer began thinking about how they could carry on helping their community. They came up with the idea of “Together for Christmas,” a Christmas dinner and festive occasion for street people, working poor, seniors and other lonely individuals to be held on Christmas Day.
Ron was somewhat taken aback when a significant number of the people they targeted wanted to be volunteers themselves because they wanted to add value to the occasion. He and the other organizers welcomed these people as volunteers, but made sure they were able to sit down and have their own dinner as part of their contribution. “Together for Christmas” has been held annually in Vernon since 2008, and is eagerly anticipated by volunteers and participants alike.
Ron has been with North Okanagan Youth and Family Services as a volunteer for many years, and has been serving as a director on its board since 2007. When asked about the benefits of volunteering in the social service sector, he says, “If I hadn’t been involved with the street clinic all those years ago, I don’t know if I’d have been able to deal with an issue that arose in my own family.”