The last week of April is National Volunteer Week! Every year, hundreds of volunteer commit thousands of hours to make our work with youth experiencing homelessness possible. They support our Programs staff, our Facilities team, and our administrative departments. They create positive experiences for youth, donors, and staff. We truly could not do our job without them!
For National Volunteer Week, we want to share Rick and Dianne’s story. Rick and Dianne have been making Christmas dinner for our youth since 1999! Every year, they share their time and their love over Christmas with youth who call our shelter home.
Thank you so much to Rick and Dianne, and to all our volunteers–longtime and brand new–who make YESS’ work possible!
Tell us a bit about yourselves!
Well, I’m not really sure where to start. I’m 60 years old and have been married to my wife, Dianne Westwood, for thirty years. That said, our relationship actually started a number of years before that. We both grew up in the same small town in Saskatchewan, then went to Saskatoon for post-secondary education, Dianne at the U of S, and me at technical school. Dianne is my strength and keeps me focused and going straight ahead. We’ve lived in Edmonton since 1986. In our first years of marriage, I was going to engineering school at the U of A, and if not for Dianne’s support and encouragement, I would have never made it through. I’m very proud of Dianne; she has been a manager with MacEwan University’s Centre for the Arts for more than 28 years. I have worked in both government and private industry over the years and presently, I’m am an engineer with the Alberta Energy Regulator. We don’t have any children, but have two small dogs, Pumpkin and Rogue, that keep us occupied. We like to make home-made wine, and we also travel as often as our time allows. Over the years we’ve had great driving trips to the Northwest Territories and Yukon, and visited all of our Canadian provinces. We have been lucky enough to make our way to Europe a few times, and even spent a short time in Africa and Asia.
What inspired you to start volunteering with YESS?
Both Dianne and I have done a bit of volunteering over the years. Before I started studying at the U of A, we spent a few months as volunteers with CUSO in Mozambique. Unfortunately, the war that was going on in the country at the time, which was just after Mozambique gained independence from Portugal, intensified in the city we were working in. A car bomb went off early one morning not far from where we were living, and it was recommended we leave. I was able to begin studying at the U of A shortly after our return to Canada, and Dianne spent several months volunteering as an ESL tutor before beginning a new job at the downtown YMCA. Basically, we were familiar with volunteering.
To answer your question, thought, through most of the 1990s, we would invite an elderly neighbour over for Christmas dinner. After she passed away, we resumed travelling to Saskatchewan for Christmas with family. After a couple of years, we decided that we would like to stay in Edmonton for the holidays, but did want to do something helpful somewhere. Dianne contacted YESS as we felt the help they offered for young adults was much needed and very worthwhile. Kids whose circumstances made their lives much tougher than ours deserved something at Christmas; offering to cook Christmas dinner wasn’t much, but it was something we felt we could take on, plus we knew that our help would give the shelter’s cook the opportunity to have the day with his family.
We are a bit unsure of the first year that we volunteered to cook at YESS, but we think it was 1999. We did miss cooking at Christmas in 2002, but haven’t missed any years since then.
If there was one thing you wish the community knew about YESS, what would it be?
I think that many Edmontonians aren’t aware enough of some problems that exist in Edmonton. We hear about the efforts that the City and a number of wonderful supporting agencies are doing to address issues, homelessness and hunger to name a couple, but we don’t hear much about troubled youth and the efforts that agencies such as YESS are doing to help support them and provide life skills training for them.
What special memories do you have of spending Christmas with the youth of YESS?
Over the years of volunteering at Christmas at YESS, we have lots of fond memories and have met wonderful volunteers, staff and clients. Nancy Ng is has been a volunteer cook for most of the years that Dianne and I have Christmas day at YESS. Nancy is a great traveler and mountain climber and has told us of many of her adventures; something we have enjoyed a lot and look forward to hearing on each occasion we meet. Really though, the hustle and bustle of preparing and serving dinner for 20 to 30 people makes for a busy piece of the day! The kids always appreciate our efforts and nearly every one of them takes a moment to say “thank you”. I especially like it when they come to us and say the food reminds them of Christmas dinners at their Grandma’s house; I like to think that these are beautiful memories for them, and that is very special for us! The staff at the Armoury are always helpful to get things set up, and the youth have their duties in clearing up the dishes after the meal. Once all is done and we are heading home, we always feel that we’ve accomplished something that we can be proud of…it isn’t much, but it is something we’ve been able to contribute.
What are your words to live by?
Be honest and respectful when dealing with people and they will respond in kind.
If you are interested in volunteering with YESS, please visit yess.org for more information!