Finding my right hand man

With the Trek Volunteer Program up and running, there were other recommendations from the consultation to be pursued. For example, it had been suggested that we organize a clothing drive at the end of the academic year to recycle all the clothes that students in residence leave behind. I also wanted to continue to consult with both the Downtown Eastside and campus communities about how UBC’s initiative should unfold. Plus I wanted to do some kind of evaluation of the Trek Program. I realized I needed help.

My UBC colleague, Alison Speer, recommended I meet a young man she knew who was just finishing an undergraduate degree in history. She had come to know him through the stable where she rode her horse every week. He was an equestrian trainer. Alison described him as energetic, capable, and lots of fun. I interviewed Shayne Tryon and was impressed, although he seemed quieter than I expected based on Alison’s description. Shayne became the second part-time employee of the Downtown Eastside Initiative.

Interviews with Trek students

I started by giving Shayne minor administrative tasks to do, things like cleaning up the list of Trek student placements and doing Internet searches related to community-university engagement and service learning. I noticed that he only needed to hear instructions once and that he always completed tasks on time without any fuss.

As the spring academic term came to an end, Shayne and I got ready to do phone interviews with all the Trek students. I wanted to get students’ feedback so we could determine how to improve the program. In addition, it seemed important to find out what students felt they had learned. I drafted an interview guide and did a couple of informal training sessions so Shayne would feel comfortable doing the interviews. He did not ask a lot of questions, so I wasn’t sure how much he was absorbing. We split the list of Trek students in half and started phoning.

In other contexts where I trained people to do research interviews, I noticed that people who are new to the task often have difficulty understanding how to walk the fine line between being curious and warm enough to establish good rapport with the person they are interviewing and being non-judgmental and reserved enough to avoid biasing the person’s answers. It is also common for people with no experience in data analysis to fail to grasp the level of detail you need to record when taking notes. Reading Shayne’s notes from his interviews with Trek students was like reading the notes of an experienced interviewer. As we discussed what we were hearing from students and how we could shape the Trek Program in response, I began to see that Shayne had more talent than I thought. But it was the first clothing drive that really showed what Shayne could do.

The clothing drive

Many of the people who had taken part in the community consultation suggested that UBC should gather up all the clothes that students abandon when they leave residence at the end of the school year and distribute the clothing to people in the Downtown Eastside. This recommendation made me cringe every time it was mentioned. I was trying very hard to downplay any impression that UBC’s efforts in the Downtown Eastside were motivated by noblesse oblige.

Doing a clothing drive to recycle the cast-offs of privileged young people was only going to reinforce the resentment people felt towards UBC, or so I thought. But since the idea had first been suggested by street youth and had been reinforced by many social service agencies, and since I had been told that students do leave a lot behind, the recommendation was brought forward. I delegated the organization of the clothing drive to Shayne.

As the school term was drawing to a close, Shayne kept me informed about his progress. He contacted appropriate staff at UBC and together they figured out how to get students to deposit their unwanted stuff in central locations in campus residences. He made arrangements with agencies that served street youth and agencies involved in the Trek Program to distribute the clothing. He arranged with UBC Plant Operations to pick up the clothing and deliver it to our vacant storefront. And he rented a van one weekend to go around to all the residences to pick up any remainders that had been missed. He even recruited Chuck Slonecker, the acting Vice-President, to help load the van.

After the weekend Shayne reported that a lot of clothing and other household goods had been collected. Now it needed to be sorted, since some agencies only wanted women’s clothing or clothing that would fit children. Some agencies were willing to accept non-clothing items; others were not. So Shayne enlisted some Trek students to help him sort through what had been collected.

After it was all over, Shayne gave me a report. He had collected and sorted through what turned out to be about 200 large garbage bags full of stuff. Not only did students leave behind clothing that was barely used, they also left behind toaster ovens, hair dryers, and other small appliances, even a few computers. The agencies were thrilled.

Shayne reported all this with an enthusiasm and pride that I had not seen before. As I grasped the scope of what he had done, essentially on his own, I realized Shayne was not the typical 20-something undergraduate student.

I also saw that my disdain for the clothing drive had been a mistake. There are times when ideology is important and times when it is counterproductive. If we had not done this clothing drive, all that stuff would have gone to the landfill. Instead it went to people who would use it. From this perspective, whether anybody got credit or whether anybody did or did not feel grateful was irrelevant. And it seemed the recipients did not feel diminished by being on the receiving end of charity. For some at least, it seemed quite the reverse. Suddenly guys started appearing on the streets of the Downtown Eastside proudly wearing sweatshirts and hoodies displaying the UBC brand. UBC was establishing a physical presence in the neighbourhood but not in a way anyone had anticipated.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Learning about Community Service Learning.