Together Project

Meet Volunteer Karen Yarosky!


“I wanted to volunteer at a place that did something on a larger scale”

Last year, when Karen Yarosky saw the refugee housing crisis in downtown Toronto, she was motivated to help.  

“It kept popping up on my feed and coming up in the news, and I could hear in the background that they were speaking Swahili,” she said. “ Having lived in East Africa and knowing the language, I just went down there to speak to them and see what was going on with my own eyes.”

She was moved by what she witnessed.

“It really affected me to see them cold without food, without enough support. I came back the next day, in the pouring rain, and they needed clothes and a warm drink. I felt welcomed by them, but I said to myself, ‘Helping as a single person wandering into that situation is clearly not effective.’”

Karen decided to find a way to help in a more structured way.

“I realized that you can give somebody clothes or food or coffee but that’s more of a bandaid solution, and I wanted to volunteer at a place that did something on a larger scale,” she said. 

When she reached out to Together Project, she embarked on a “deep and meaningful experience” that she did not expect.

Newcomers and Mental Health

Karen knew that without a community, many newcomers might struggle with mental health and get easily overwhelmed.

“There are so many resources, but they need to be able to use a computer and be comfortable in the language,” she said. “Some newcomers don’t have the capability to mill through everything and interpret what they need.”

While refugee newcomers can ask a caseworker for assistance, Karen said that there are other opportunities to ask for help. 

“I feel like the caseworkers are so overburdened,” she said. “But if a newcomer is feeling bad, they can always reach out to their Welcome Group— we know that there shouldn’t be a stigma attached to seeking help.”

Karen’s main advice for any newcomers struggling with mental health is that they can consider their Welcome Group to be a safe space to receive encouragement and to reach out for professional help if they need it. 

“A great first step is to encourage them to reach out to their doctor or to access emergency services at CAMH— and as a volunteer, we can encourage them to do so. It’s not up to us to address their mental health issues, but the important thing is to notice it, to be supportive, and to send it up the line.”

Exploring the City

As someone who is passionate about helping others see how they can live in Toronto on limited funds Karen recommends bringing newcomers to the library and getting them a library card.

“Having that opens a whole new world, in terms of community, access to resources, and free courses,” she said.

Karen also recommends Kensington Market for its vibrancy, diverse foods, and focus on the arts. “It’s fun to be a tour guide,” she said. “I love seeing first reactions!”

And sometimes, a city adventure can include something that’s new for everyone. 

For Karen, one particular outing involved going into OCAD University to see the students creating art. 

“I’ve never walked into OCAD before, and I’ve lived in the city most of my life,” she said. “It made me see the city with new eyes.”

Karen’s Recommendations for Volunteers

When Karen was first deciding to volunteer with newcomers, she had some insecurities. 

“I was worried that I wasn’t going to live up to the standards, or that they would be in a position where if I couldn’t give them the time exactly when they needed it, that I couldn’t be the right person for them,” she said.  

However, Karen was able to see that she was still able to connect. 

“Everyone on the planet can relate to each other in different ways— being able to connect is what builds trust. I thought at first that you can’t show vulnerability, but just go in knowing that you can,” she said. 

She recommends that volunteers come without preconceived notions about what the match will be like. 

“Don’t expect apple picking and helping with homework when it could be more than that,” she said. “Understand that you will receive more than you give— I really do believe that.”

Purpose and Meaning

Karen reminds potential volunteers that if they are anxious about the Welcome Group Program, they should remember that they won’t be alone. 

“A six-month commitment felt long and big, but there was a lot of leniency,” she said. “If you can’t be there in person, you can pick up the phone— don’t be overwhelmed because there’s a million ways to fulfill this commitment.”

For Karen, one positive aspect of the Welcome Group Program was that she would be part of a team of three volunteers.

“At first, I didn’t realize that we were in groups — I thought it was my sole responsibility,” she said. “But having a group of us with different strengths was so important— it’s not all resting on your shoulders. I learned so much— I don’t know where else you would get an education like that.”

Now that Karen has finished her first Welcome Group match, she is eager to be matched again.

“It gave me some purpose, some meaning in a way that you don’t get by just hanging out with your friends and doing your job,” she said. “It made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile, and I got a lot of love and friendship out of it.”

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