Keeping connected with others is essential for our wellbeing, but for many people, avoiding social isolation became a much greater challenge during the pandemic.
Over the last year, Alex Wharton has been volunteering with several organizations in Ottawa that focuses on connecting people. Through his efforts, he has connected with seniors in isolation, young students, and members of the LGBT community over the age of 55.
Wharton says that while he has helped others, these experiences have also helped him combat his own loneliness.
“I think that social connection is very important for mental health. Staying socially connected is very important for me to remain happy and healthy. I think that’s the case for most people,” says Wharton.
“I, at times, have been kind of lonely. I noticed I was low energy and had trouble concentrating. I was trying to figure out what it was, and then I eventually realized I was lonely.”
Wharton says that when he landed in Ottawa last year, he decided to reach out and help others who might be experiencing the same feelings.
“When I was looking for volunteer work, I was focused on trying to help people who wanted more social connections. I thought that during COVID it has probably been exacerbated. Especially since many seniors are more vulnerable to it, and therefor might want to be more physically distanced,” says Wharton.
“I enjoy it so much; I don’t even really consider it volunteering. I find it extremely enjoyable. It’s kind of like a hobby, a really fun way to spend my time and I get to help people out.”
Whether he is reading short stories with ESL (English as a second language) students, connecting with senior citizens through A Friendly Voice, speaking with folks weekly from the Dementia Society or acting as an LGBT coordinator with The Good Companion, it is the people that keep Wharton motivated.
“I would say my favourite thing to do is A Friendly Voice because you never know who you’re going to talk to. It could be anyone in Ontario,” says Wharton.
“There’s some people I will only talk to once, others will want to talk to you again. It’s a very interesting and fun place to volunteer because you really never know what to expect.”
Wharton says one of the moments that stands out from his time volunteering was getting to speak with a centennial Canadian, believing the chance to hear and learn from someone who experienced the last hundred years of history was invaluable.
“I asked him about his life. Some of his earliest memories are coming to Canada after the end of the First World War,” says Wharton.
“I thought that was absolutely incredible because there aren’t too many people left who were alive during that time. So, he’s telling you about every decade of his life. It’s very possible I’ll never talk to someone like him again.”
However, when it comes to making a difference, Wharton feels most accomplished when volunteering for the Ottawa School Board as an ESL tutor. During the last school year, Wharton connected with junior high students to help them develop language skills through reading and analyzing stories. Sometimes as many as eight times a week.
“It’s really enjoyable. It’s great to see people coming to Canada from other parts of the world. I think that they’re new Canadians but quite a few were Syrian refugees and it’s really, really fun helping them out,” says Wharton.
“I think that everyone who calls in, or between the staff and the tutoring, they’re having to do that because they need something more from it, more of a social connection. It really does feel like you’re making a difference.”
Anyone interesting in learning more about A Friendly Voice are encouraged to explore their website, and other volunteer positions can be found by visiting Volunteer Ottawa Hub to find an organization that speaks to you.