SFU Surrey’s TD Community Engagement Centre transitions to virtual volunteering amid COVID-19

The centre’s virtual programs assist low-income and newcomer families in Surrey

Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University

Written by: Anna Kazi, Peak Associate

The SFU Surrey TD Community Engagement Centre (CEC) is offering virtual volunteering opportunities for the summer. Due to the health risks associated with COVID-19, all of the in-person volunteering opportunities have been temporarily cancelled. However, by mid-April, the CEC was able to pivot several programs into virtual formats. 

The CEC connects SFU students to organizations/non-profits in Surrey for volunteering opportunities. The volunteer programs range from after-school programs for children to English Conversation Circles for adult newcomers in Canada. Students can volunteer to help with tutoring and mentoring newcomer and low-income children and youth, participate in virtual cafes to tell newcomer youth, or help kids learn how to make simple animated films. 

The Centre’s Associate Director, Gretchen Ferguson, is pleased with their new recruitment method. In an email interview with The Peak, she explained that the centre is running a bi-weekly virtual ‘cafe’ for SFU student volunteers and students that are interested in volunteering 

However, moving the centre’s programs online has come with some challenges. “The response from families/parents has been positive, but there are definitely challenges,” Ferguson noted that some families lacked the necessary technology to participate in their virtual programs. 

“We are working on ways to support them, such as obtaining free tables with data plans from Telus for families in need,” Ferguson added. 

Ferguson continued, “Virtual volunteering is not as simple as just putting our existing programming online. Connecting with our partners shows that they need a different kind of support right now.” 

While the CEC has temporarily suspended some volunteering programs such as their Early Learning and Community Connect programs, they have recently launched new COVID-19 related volunteering opportunities. According to Ferguson, “Newcomer youth and isolated seniors need social connection and we are creating this connection through new programs.” 

SFU students can now help build the social connection needed by volunteering in digital literacy and access where isolated seniors in Burnaby Neighbourhood House are given access and taught the use of communication technologies (such as smartphones).

The CEC is also running an online Community Engagement training course and virtual orientation sessions through Zoom. 

Ferguson stated that while they currently do not have plans to resume in-person programs, “we are starting to have some on-site volunteering such as packing food hampers for families in need and cleaning up tablets and other devices to give out to people in the community that need them.”