Stephanie Gauthier – Contributor
Life has few universal truths, but Carly La Berge has discovered one of them – the unifying power of chocolate.
“People run up to us saying, ‘candy, candy, candy,” says La Berge, describing her work as a volunteer lead with HOPE Outreach in Kelowna. For many of those La Berge helps in the community, that piece of chocolate can be the highlight of their day.
Since September 2019, she has spent as many as four evenings a week volunteering with HOPE. She dons her bright, pink hoodie, then heads downtown to meet other volunteers and together they hand out goods to people experiencing homelessness. These goods include water, food, warm clothing, harm reduction supplies, and just about anything else someone might need. The volunteers also take requests for items to bring with them next time.
“People may not get as excited for these other items as they do for the chocolate, but those are the things that are really important,” says La Berge. “The chocolate is mostly a token of trust.”
While the chocolate does help to build trust, her pink hoodie is just as important. It’s the calling card of HOPE Outreach volunteers and is recognized as a symbol that the person wearing it is trustworthy and there to help.
“I’ve met clients out when I’m not volunteering and they’re a lot more hesitant with me than when I’m wearing the pink hoodie,” adds La Berge.
She points to HOPE founder Angie Lohr as another important part of that trust-building. Angie has personal experience with homelessness, substance use, and sex work. La Bergewas introduced to HOPE after hearing Angie speak at a conference.
“She was the reason I got involved,” says La Berge.
It also gives HOPE credibility in the eyes of the people they serve.
“People who experience homelessness generally face a lot of stigma and a lot of hostility,” explains La Berge. “They’re slow to trust new people, and that’s totally understandable. I’d be reluctant to take food from a random person, too.”
HOPE Outreach is always looking for new volunteers.
“You don’t need to have special credentials to volunteer,” says La Berge. “I made the mistake of thinking that and it kept me from getting involved with HOPE for years. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, you can help.”