Chocolate and Empathy: Advice from an outreach volunteer
By Stephanie Gauthier
Life has few universal truths, but Carly La Berge has discovered one of them – the unifying power of chocolate.
“People run up to us saying, ‘candy, candy, candy’,” she says, describing her work as a volunteer Outreach Lead with HOPE Outreach in Kelowna. For many of those that Carly helps in the community, that piece of chocolate can be the highlight of their day.
Since September 2019, she has spent as many as four evenings each week volunteering with HOPE. She dons her bright, pink hoodie, then heads downtown to meet other volunteers and together they hand out goods to people experiencing homelessness. These goods include water, food, warm clothing, harm reduction supplies, and just about anything else someone might need. The volunteers also take requests for items to bring with them next time.
“People may not get as excited for these other items as they do for the chocolate, but those are the things that are really important,” Carly says. “The chocolate is mostly a token of trust.”
While the chocolate does help to build trust, her pink hoodie is just as important. It’s the calling card of HOPE Outreach volunteers and it’s recognized as a symbol that the person wearing it is trustworthy and there to help.
“I’ve met clients out when I’m not volunteering and they’re a lot more hesitant with me than when I’m wearing the pink hoodie,” Carly says.
HOPE has earned the trust of their clients through years of support and service. Carly points to HOPE founder Angie Lohr as another important part of that trust building. Angie has personal experience with homelessness, substance use and sex work, and that helps HOPE connect with volunteers like Carly.
“She was the reason I got involved with HOPE,” says Carly, who was introduced to HOPE after hearing Angie speak at a conference.
It also gives HOPE credibility in the eyes of the people they serve.
“People who experience homelessness generally face a lot of stigma and a lot of hostility,” Carly says. “They’re slow to trust new people, and that’s totally understandable. I’d be reluctant to take food from a random person, too.”
Stigma creates real barriers that can prolong and perpetuate homelessness and this reluctance to trust others is an example of that force in action. It’s for this reason that Carly encourages people to route donations through trusted organizations like HOPE rather than offering support directly. There’s always a need for socks, gloves and other warm clothing, as well as toothpaste, dental floss and other toiletries.
“Yes, chocolate, too,” Carly says. “There’s always need for chocolate.”
HOPE Outreach is also always looking for new volunteers, and if you do volunteer you may find yourself working alongside Carly. Training is one part of her role as an Outreach Lead.
“You don’t need to have special credentials to volunteer,” she says. “I made the mistake of thinking that and it kept me from getting involved with HOPE for years. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, you can help.”
Carly has volunteered for years in different capacities, and it’s become an important part of her life and identity. She demonstrates every day the profound difference one caring person can make in the lives of people who experience homelessness.
“It’s just very fulfilling,” she says. “It feels good to give back, to see a gap in your community and work with a group or an organization to fill that gap.”
Still, she sees something even more basic we can all do to help address homelessness – something even sweeter than chocolate – and that’s to approach homelessness with empathy.
“We tend to see homelessness as a personal failing,” she says. “But, the truth is it can happen to anyone because of the hand they’re dealt in life. People don’t avoid homelessness because they’re better or smarter or harder working than others. I’ve met a lot of people through my work and I’m convinced that isn’t true. It’s mostly just circumstances.”
HOPE Outreach provides nighttime outreach seven days a week for women in Kelowna and Vernon experiencing homelessness or exploitation, using substances and working in sex work. Their first priority is supporting these women’s immediate and basic needs. Visit hopeokanagan.com to learn more about volunteering with HOPE Outreach.
National Volunteer Week runs from April 24 to 30, 2022. This year’s theme is “Volunteering Is Empathy in Action” and affirms the strong connection between volunteerism and empathy.