Every Year, I Volunteer Somewhere New

Making a small difference in the off-hours

Shannon Litt
6 min readSep 29, 2019


Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

The first time I walked into the Toronto Wildlife Centre, the rescue team was bringing in an injured swan. Minutes later, they were out the door and onto the next call. The TWC Wildlife Hotline handles an average of 30,000 calls about animals in the Greater Toronto Area per year and, as I write this, they have over 350 patients in their care — over 60 species. It’s a staggering amount of work for very few employees.

That’s where volunteers come in.

According to the Millennial Impact Report, millennials care about environmental and social issues—a lot. We’re far more involved in activism than ever before…but because we earn less than previous generations and owe more (student debts, car payments, high-priced rent and housing, etc.), it isn’t surprising that many opt to donate their time rather than their funds.

I’m no exception. Donating my time seems more valuable than what I could afford to give in monetary donations. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years.

Photo by Charlie Marusiak on Unsplash

The Toronto Wildlife Centre relies heavily on volunteers. The staff at the TWC are passionate, kind people who work long, gruelling hours for little pay. With so many patients in their care, they need outside help… but training people to work with wild animals takes time and energy, already a scarce resource.

I learned so much during my time at the TWC—like how to feel a pigeon’s crop to see if they’ve eaten, how to clean a snapping turtle’s enclosure, and to cover a squirrel’s eyes while you feed it in the nursery (if you don’t, they’ll associate people with food in the wild).

Occasionally, the TWC sends out emails asking for people to sign a petition or write to various decision-makers. I wish they would do more of this. It’s no skin off my back to spend five minutes on a good cause, from the comfort of my own home.

I still try to do what I can to support the organization—this fall, I’m running the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half-Marathon in support of the TWC.

(You can make a donation here!)

Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash

The community garden near my apartment is one of the last of its kind—most of Toronto’s gardens have assigned plots. The community garden near my apartment is truly communal, where everyone takes care of the garden as a whole.

Volunteering at the garden was an entirely new experience, one that I recommend to anyone with access to an outdoor space. There’s something satisfying about getting your hands dirty and watching things grow. I planted seeds one week, and saw them sprout up the next. I learned that green onions and nasturtiums are natural pest deterrents, and to plant them along the edge of the garden. That the “three sisters” means squash, beans, and corn. That maple tree seeds will pop up everywhere, even if there isn’t a maple tree in sight. That tomatoes—one of my least favourite foods—are actually delicious when plucked straight off the vine.

Working in a garden, I also saw the plight inflicted by aphids and flea beetles, how important it is to water early in the morning and before it gets dark, and how much work it takes to grow even a small amount of food. It took several people a whole summer to produce a real harvest. It really makes you appreciate the work that goes into your greens—never again will I complain about the price of kale at a farmer’s market.

I loved working at the garden. It was a convenient, ten-minute walk from my apartment. I met many new people in my community, and learned a ton about how to grow my own food, which made me feel slightly more prepared for a zombie apocalypse.

Photo by Jennifer Chen on Unsplash

This year, I volunteered at the Toronto Humane Society (THS). My job was to socialize special species.

By special species, I mean anything that isn’t cats and dogs—primarily bunnies and guinea pigs. And by ‘socialize’, I mean ‘sit in a playpen with each animal and get them used to interacting with people’. Dream job.

Every week, I met and socialized new bunnies. Each had their own distinct personality. Jamaica and Belize were an adorable, very shy pair of sisters who’d been at the THS for a long time (they’re happily adopted now, with awesome parents who post updates about them on Reddit). Maloos was a “tripod”—a three-legged bun—who loved cuddling with her stuffed turtle (she was adopted within the day). Wilbur was a massive Angora rabbit, known for their thick fur and chill attitude. He basically looked, and acted, like a giant carpet. “Can he even see?” one kid asked me, seeing his shaggy bangs. And yes, Wilbur was adopted within a few days of arriving at the shelter, too. Everyone loves a giant bunny.

It was bittersweet seeing bunnies get adopted. It was hard to see them trotted off in their little carriers, but the shelter’s interview process was thorough and the staff were diligent—I knew the bunnies went to good homes.

The THS is open to the public, so I got tons of questions about caring for bunnies. I’ve had buns of my own for about 5 years, so I have a base of knowledge to work from. There are many myths about rabbit care—like “bunnies can’t be litter-trained” and “bunnies belong in cages”—so working in special species was a great opportunity to dispel some misconceptions.

The training to volunteer at the humane society was minimal, and working directly with the animals was fulfilling. If I had a question, there was always someone around that I could ask. If a bunny took a turn for the worse, they had several vet techs available. If I wanted to feed the bunnies greens, there was a rooftop garden, full of options.

Photo by Christopher Brown on Unsplash

I grew up volunteering. I spent lunch hours volunteering in my school library, week nights volunteering with my youth group, and weekends volunteering at my church. When I got to university, however, I stopped. It was strange, not doing something else besides schoolwork and my part-time work. Coming back to volunteering felt like a return to something familiar, and good.

I’ve learned that every bit helps. Every dollar, every hour or two you can volunteer.

I’ve learned that you’ll come away with a ton of knowledge, and fun stories to tell at parties.

And I’ve learned that volunteering gives you a sense of purpose. It can lift you up, and make you feel like you’ve done something good with your day. Work may have been shitty, but that shy bunny finally approached you. See a disturbing video about animal cruelty on Facebook? Here, watch three dedicated vet techs repair this turtle’s broken shell. Feel like the world is on fire? Grow something green. You can make a difference.

I’m not sure where I’ll volunteer next year. I’m leaning towards the Children’s Aid Society, but maybe I’ll do Habitat for Humanity or Planned Parenthood.

There’s no shortage of opportunity.