We met on a cool, bright afternoon, full of late autumn sunshine. I was quick to identify the reasons people had spoken such fond words about him as he greeted me in a crowded coffee shop, his hand extended, a yellow mug balanced in the other, asking me my name. The confidence David exuded did not deter my shock. After a few formal introductory emails, and information that I had clearly misunderstood, I realized my critical mistake: David was not a volunteer of the Pacific Spirit Park Society (‘the Society’) for seventeen years, but a volunteer of seventeen years. The next half hour would prove the biggest nightmare for any interviewer, as I was forced to abandon my premeditated questions. However, something equally lovely happened: I found myself not needing that hackneyed script and became increasingly curious about this high school boy who gave up a lot of his free time to volunteer.
David juggles his role as Volunteer Leader at the Society, events for Sea Watch, seasonal work at an Equestrian Farm in Southlands and is also the head sound technician at his high school, working in the technical aspects of theatre production. He has also applied for a scholarship with Metro Vancouver Regional Parks for youth leadership – something the Society would love to see David flourish in. As part of the leadership team for PSPS, David guides groups of volunteers, ensures they are handling tools safely and correctly, and helps them complete the day’s assigned task. The thing I found myself really wanting to know was why. Why come out every week, away from family and friends, to tramp around in a large, musty park? David, humble and obliging, said he started volunteering for the Society simply because it was something to do. Weekends for David in his early high school days had plenty of room to fill, and he explained further: “it felt nice to be part of an organization on some mission. I liked the stuff we were doing. I enjoyed the restoration and it felt like we were helping the park and helping people use the park.”
As our conversation continued, I discovered he was both clever and pragmatic.
“The Society has made some good choices,” he informed me, such as “making the tasks more and more large mission orientated as opposed to individual changes every day. It’s good for a low level volunteer perspective to see it as mission orientated.”
He was sitting in front me: layers and layers of blue like a cloudless sky, the combinations endless. The crystal blue of his eyes disappeared under long lashes, head bent forward over a sky blue buttoned shirt, accompanied by a baby blue puff jacket. When I heard David talk I thought of what it feels like to volunteer myself, this mix of purpose and fulfillment, time spent doing things you love, not needing monetary exchange to give it value. The value already inherent in the act.
“I think the thing with volunteering is the feeling you are doing something terribly important,” he said, voicing my thoughts, then bringing it back to the Park: “especially with the mapping and the water monitoring, because to me that feels like data gathering and helping research. Ecological restoration in all forms is valuable…we are collecting data and it feels nice that the data you are collecting is going in at least some capacity to someone to use for research purposes.”
I commended him on his efforts, telling him he is valiant in this altruistic attitude. He encouraged people to join the Society and described they had a few regulars but generally there was a high turnover of volunteers, the majority being made up of UBC (university) and St George (high school) students. The time commitment is understandably difficult, especially after people graduate. David is in his last year at Prince of Wales High. I asked him what he wants to do when he graduates and cringed: I hated getting asked this and remember only too well the mundane pressure, the desperate inability to forecast a career, the vultures that circle when you become too introspective. But David is looking beyond the local paddocks. He has eyes for East Coast or American universities that don’t require you to elect a Major until the second year, thus offering him greater freedom for a little while longer.
“Right now I’m sticking with a Math based focus,” he told me. “But I like the more social aspects of sciences as well: how it connects to policy. That interests me. I say Mathematics because I’m interested in it but it’s hard for me to rectify that with also liking governmental policy and how that is influenced by scientific thinking and research…That is one of the things I look forward to in university: the ability to explore different avenues. More so then anything else that is the most valuable thing to me.”
This clear articulation inspired in me a desire to have had David’s certainty around something that in its very nature is uncertain: the future.
Towards the end of our chat, when we were winding down, David said he had an interesting and useful story for me. I chirped in anticipation. And so he told me how he found out about the Society in the first place, in 2014, through a school tutoring program, Brain Boost. “I joined along for the day … removing ‘invasives’ and it stuck with me, and then I remember a year later I thought: ‘how could I get involved in that?’ I guess the message for that is I think it is valuable for some sort of involvement – trying to get schools to get out – I don’t know how viable that is. But I didn’t know it existed beforehand.”
He also gave me a new perspective, something I had not really recognizing before. He talked about how the new developments going up were more and more a reflection of the Park, tall wood buildings scaling to Vancouver’s big skies when the clouds weren’t sitting there, bellies full of rain. All that wood: the raw and the planed, the creaking and the polished. I loved the thought of how they could mirror each other, one side crafted by nature, the other side crafted by man. Even drinking our coffees we were surrounded by wood: the spirit of the park never far from our consciousness.
“It’s important for the UBC community. It really makes the whole UBC architecture work. A lot of the new architecture is very environmentally focused … new uses of woods. To a greater extent just the general feel of the UBC area and the greater Endowment Lands; I think the park is very important to its style. That’s what I like. I think I appreciate the Park first for just being there, almost, as opposed to being a bunch of residential buildings.”
I loved the small answer David gave me when I asked what his favorite thing about the Park was; apart from liking that it was maintained. Sometimes things are best when they are put simply: “it’s beautiful.
Written by Ruby Ewens
Photo: Andre-Phillip Picard