During the beginning of July I had the chance to volunteer with the United Church of Canada through The GO Project in Vancouver, BC. It really opened up my eyes to the amount of poverty that we have in Canada because coming from a small town of around 30,000 people, I had never saw systematic homelessness on such a large scale.
The program only lasted from July 3-14, but when I was purchasing my plane tickets I wanted to arrive a few days early to explore what #BeautifulBC had to offer. I booked my ticket so that I'd arrive there on June 30, which would give me a few days to visit some attractions.
I had endured a three hour flight from London to Winnipeg, followed by a two hour layover and then another three hour flight to Vancouver. Oddly enough, the three hour time difference didn't throw me off. When I arrived at the airport and grabbed my bags (this was the first time I was flying anywhere by myself) I headed straight for the taxi stand. I was tired and ready to take a nap and didn't feel like trying to figure out how to use the transit system. The taxi ride took around half a hour and traffic was quite heavy. By the time I had dropped all my stuff at the Airbnb I was staying at, I was starving and set out for a grocery store to get some food (consisting of cereal, granola bars and pizza pockets).
The next morning I set out to take a walk to the nearest Skytrain station, with the goal of getting downtown. The first thing I did was purchase a Compass Card — essentially a reloadable card that you use to pay for transit, like Presto in Toronto — that gave me some good discounts on the bus and subway. With the help of free wifi and a phone call to the TransLink help line, I made my way to Canada Place and let me tell you, the views were amazing. I didn't have anything planned on this day (I had assumed many places would be closed because of Canada Day) so I took a stroll downtown, passing the massive public library and the convention centre before honing in on a Starbucks. While sipping on my iced tea I looked up directions to get to the Vancouver Aquarium where I got to see lots of starfish, jellyfish and even got to touch a stingray!
After I was done at the aquarium I hopped on the bus to the subway station again and (anybody from Vancouver will laugh at this) somehow found myself in New Westminster. While I was there I did find a huge farmers market situated right beside the water I wanted to get back downtown so I wouldn't miss the fireworks. They started at 10 p.m. which meant I was quite early to see them but there were already crowds of people so I stayed around the waterfront until they started.
Trying to get out of the the downtown core after the show proved to be quite difficult and I had to wait around 45 minutes just to catch the train. Though they had put extra trains into service to cope with the demand, the crowds were so huge it didn't make much of a difference.
On Saturday I got up bright and early and made my way to Waterfront Station where I was planning to hop on the ferry to North Vancouver. From there, I meandered through the downtown for a little while before boarding a bus to Capilano Suspension Bridge. It was so incredible (and terrifying) to talk across a valley on the bridge, which kept swaying back and fourth as more people walked across.
On the other side were some paths to walk on which were really peaceful and quiet; something I found weird since the park seemed to be packed. There was also a suspension bridge that I walked across that gave me some neat views of the valley below. Overall the experience here was really neat but it didn't quite live up to the hype everybody had said it was.
After leaving the park I made my way back downtown and boarded the train to Richmond to see what neat things were hiding down there. Just as my luck would have it, there was nothing I could find so I hopped back on the train and decided to take a walk along the beach instead. The beaches in Vancouver are packed (I should've expected as much on a hot Saturday afternoon). I later wondered through 'Chinatown' and up to Gastown where I then boarded the train and decided to call it a night.
The next day I packed up all my belongings and set off for the church where we would be staying during the program. (BTW, here's a lifehack for you: you don't have to repack what you don't unpack). Since I had arrived earlier in the week we were still waiting on some people who had booked later planes in the day. While we waited, the few other participants and myself set out to discover a little bit more of downtown Vancouver.
We headed out on the bus but due to someone's incorrect directions (hint: it was me, sorry!) we ended up getting off the bus a few kilometres to early and decided to continue our journey on foot. Along the way we walked across the Granville Bridge, which gave us some nice views of the creek running through the city and found a used clothing store where we tried on some clothing. We were feeling a bit hungry after the walk so we found a vietnamese restaurant where we ate lunch. It was my first time trying that type of food and it wasn't bad, but it's not something you'd normally find me eating.
Finally we arrived at English Bay Beach where we took our shoes off and relaxed in the water for a while. The sun was shining and the beach wasn't too busy, plus you could see the mountains across from the water!
Throughout the first week we volunteered at Quest Food Exchange, which is a retail-store/charity-hybrid that purchases food with packaging that's damaged and repackages it into new containers for low-income people who have been vetted by the organization to purchase at a reduced price. It was really incredible to see the behind-the-scenes work that went on to make this a possibility. One of the main philosophies of the organization is keeping someone's dignity, because sometimes asking for help can be a little bit intimidating. When people come to Quest and are able to pay for their own food, they get a sense of pride because they're still providing for themselves.
We had the opportunity to get a tour of the Christ Church Cathedral in downtown, which is one of the main churches in the city. Though we weren't able to view the whole church because of some renovations that were going on, we got a peek inside along with some history of the building.
On the weekend we got a little bit of time to relax — so of course we had to be tourists and hit up Grouse Mountain and Granville Island. Granville was really neat because of the large amount of shops on the island (there's a university located there too!) and plenty of choices for good food. To get to Grouse Mountain we had to take a gondola to the top which was a bit scary but gave me a good opportunity to take a time-lapse video. On top of the mountain there were some shops, displays and hiking trails. We ended up taking a ski-lift to the very top of the mountain where we found see the whole metro Vancouver area.
Throughout the following half a week we spent together we had the opportunity to volunteer at several community meal programs including at Dunbar Ryerson United Church where they put on a free lunch once a week for people in need. We visited First United Church and there we saw the vast amount of systematic poverty that is confined to that one part of Vancouver. Though the government is doing something through the introduction of supervised injection sites for drug users and community housing, addiction and homelessness still reign over Vancouver's upper east side.
For our final day the coordinator-liaison invited us to her house for some food and refreshments. We played some games and smiled at the memories we had made over the last week and a half.
After cooling off inside we went to the beach to reflect on what we saw and did during our time in the city. I ended up saving the life of a starfish when I found it washed up on the beach and threw it back into the water!
I was the first person to leave in the morning to catch my 11 a.m. plane to Calgary and then, after another layover, to London. After taking a long time to say goodbye (a goodbye filled with lots of hugs and tears) I left for the airport.
The GO Project is easily one of the most incredible experiences in my lifetime. I learned so much about making a difference in my community and about the prominent issues that Canada is facing on a global scale.