By Louise Kinross
Today, Emily’s a 20-year-old University of Toronto student receiving a 2017 Volunteer Service Award from Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.
In recent years, Emily has volunteered to bring a patient voice to research projects at Holland Bloorview, acted as a mentor to other youth with disabilities, and is currently co-chairing our youth advisory council.
“I volunteer here because I want to be able to give back,” Emily says. “I lived here for the first six years of my life. I made incredible physical and mental progress during that time, thanks to the medical teams and physiotherapists and occupational therapists. Without their dedication and commitment, I don’t think I’d be where I am today. I like to be a testimony of ‘Yes, you can do it’ for other youth.”
Emily says serving as co-chair on our youth advisory council is one of her favourite roles. “It comes back full circle,” she says. “To go from being a child who was the recipient of these services to being in the position to inform the hospital on how to make services better and more inclusive is really interesting.”
Emily, who’s in her third year of mental health studies and health policy, says teens with disabilities face a couple of significant barriers to volunteering.
“Speaking from personal experience, I think society in general looks down on people with disabilities as the recipient of volunteer services and help, rather than as the giver of such services,” she says. “That really shuts down a lot of potential. Individuals are afraid to pursue volunteering because of what other people may think, or feel that they don’t belong in that capacity—that they’re not adequate. People with disabilities have a lot more to offer than most people give them credit for. What we do, we just do in different ways.”
Another challenge for youth with disabilities is transportation, Emily says. “The reality is that most of us don’t have a reliable and flexible means of transportation. How are you supposed to volunteer when you can’t even get to the location? Transportation is a huge barrier that’s often glossed over.”
Emily has acted as a mentor to teens at Holland Bloorview and, more recently, to first-year students at the University of Toronto. “I like being able to say ‘Hey, here’s what I’ve been through, and this is what helped me, and this is what I would suggest.’ I like to see my experience impact another person, even if it’s just one person.”
Emily says her volunteer roles at Holland Bloorview have opened her up to a diversity of disability experiences. “I’ve learned that people have amazing stories to tell if you give them the opportunity,” she says. “I didn’t really consider things other than my own struggles before. Hearing what people with different disabilities face puts things in perspective for me. It’s inspiring to see how different people deal with the disability they’ve been handed, and how they harness their disability in a positive manner.”