Student and Volunteer Fiona Awan is one of this year’s recipients of the Mayor's Volunteer Service Award in Volunteer Manitoba’s 38th Volunteer Awards. She is being recognized for spearheading Calls For Comfort, the second initiative of The Vic Foundation's and Victoria Lifeline’s Send A Smile To A Senior program.
It’s a Friday afternoon at Victoria General Hospital Foundation and Fiona Awan’s generous smile overflows as she sits down to talk about her Calls For Comfort initiative and her eagerly anticipated Volunteer Manitoba award. Awan, a 17-year-old student at Fort Richmond Collegiate, is no stranger to volunteering. She’s a passionate and motivated young woman on a mission to spread cheer to others—volunteering her time on her school’s Student Council and with numerous other groups.
Awan’s compassion, empathy and kindness are the driving forces that sparked her idea of Calls For Comfort, a project she developed as part of her Leadership class at school. “The idea started even before the pandemic,” Awan recalls. “I heard stories of seniors who maybe didn’t have family or friends to visit them, so they were isolated in care homes or shut in at home. And then when the pandemic struck, I thought that if I was feeling isolated and miserable from all the restrictions then seniors would be too, especially since their families couldn’t visit them anymore; basically, cutting-off their outlet for socializing.”
Awan reached out to us to partner with Fort Richmond Collegiate on this initiative as part of Send A Smile To A Senior, a program developed by The Vic Foundation and Victoria Lifeline last year to combat senior isolation and improve the well-being of seniors in our community. According to the Government of Canada article Social Isolation of Seniors, an estimated 30 per cent of Canada’s growing senior population are at risk of becoming socially isolated.
Fort Garry Seniors Resource Council at ACCESS Fort Garry recruited seniors for 30-minute phone or video calls once per week with students. Awan also went to work recruiting fellow students to volunteer for the project. The committee created a tip sheet with icebreaker discussion starters, listening skills, a topic for the weekly calls and mental health resources. In total, five students and five seniors took part in the project. “I thought the calls needed to have some kind of topic, in case the conversation was slow or awkward. Themes ranged from favourite foods, childhood memories to life lessons; that was a big one,” says Awan.
And what about Awan and her fellow students, were they nervous? “Absolutely, I was nervous, everyone was nervous about it. We really didn’t know what to expect. It was my first time doing anything like this, and I was out of my comfort zone.” But, as the seniors and students got to know each other, the calls soon went from 30-minutes to up to two hours. “Everyone was laughing, sharing stories from their school days and learning more about each other’s lives and experiences,” explains Awan.
Ilona Orosz, one of the seniors who signed up to take part in the weekly phone calls, told us why she thinks a program like this is valuable. "I think it helps older people see the good, positive and caring side of the younger generation." Orosz is fortunate to have her nephew living with her, but the pandemic meant she could not meet up with her friends for breakfasts, lunches or dinners. “Some of us have been meeting for over 25 years and not being able to do that was very hard.”
Orosz, a self-proclaimed chatterbox, loved talking to the students. “I looked forward to spending time on Zoom with the girls. It made me feel good when I made them laugh at some of the stories I shared with them.” She loved hearing about the student’s families and how their school year was going. “The stories shared by seniors are a part of history, maybe not the kind we learn in school but they help to give the young a different perspective. If my stories can help a young person see things in a different way, it is a good thing.”
Armed with proof that the program positively impacted her daily life, Orosz says she will definitely sign up again. She shared her experience with friends and encouraged them to sign up for the program next time it is offered.
Awan is beaming as she tells us more about the impact Calls For Comfort had on the students and seniors. “Well, I know that the student volunteers weren’t sure what to expect, but that they’ve grown to appreciate seniors living in the community because they could really see that they were helping people. And that’s a really fulfilling thing!”
As for Awan herself, “I didn’t know if people would really go for this idea and secondly, that it would make as big of a difference as it has...I just wanted to do something to help people. The seniors have told me that they liked the program, that it helped their well-being and that they were able to connect to and learn from the young people. And once you learn that you can take an idea and make it a reality, you can’t replace feelings like that. This is what feeds me.”
At the end of the project, The Vic Foundation sponsored thank you activity bags as a thank you to the seniors. Each bag contained a greeting card, painting kit, puzzle and crossword puzzle book that Awan packed and hand-delivered (safely, of course!) as a surprise to each senior.
What’s Awan’s biggest takeaway from Calls For Comfort? Her eyes light up as she recalls a quote from one of the seniors that made a profound imprint on her, so much so that she wrote it down in her notes app. “At the end of your life, you won’t care about how many cars or how much money you have, you’ll care about the people, so make people your priority.” Awan, says the statement was a lightbulb moment for her, “This one statement is basically the whole idea around volunteering. Make people a priority because at the end of your life, you won’t really care about your possessions.”
Awan tells us how shocked she was to learn that she was one of the recipients of the Mayor's Volunteer Service Award. “I never thought I would receive the award because there are so many people doing brilliant things at other non-profit organizations in the province. But when I was selected for the award, I was like, ‘You know what? Maybe I am helping people.’”
She is looking forward to working with The Vic Foundation and Victoria Lifeline again to explore expanding Calls For Comfort to impact even more seniors.
Awan has even created a Facebook group called Calls For Comfort MB, dedicated to reaching seniors in the community with news updates and information for volunteers and seniors. So, if you are a senior or a student and want to get involved, please join the group or contact us at (204) 477-3513 to learn more.