Volunteer of the Month - Recipients for 2017-2018

On this page, you'll meet some of the devoted and inspiring people who are making a difference and having a positive impact on the people around them and on the community.


May 2018 - Nathalie Vilgrain 

Student smiling on a bridge, overlooking green trees and a lake

Beginning university is an important moment in a person’s life. The transition is often accompanied by strong emotions and nervousness. For Nathalie Vilgrain, a second-year social sciences student doing a joint honours in public administration and political science, it was the perfect time to get involved outside the classroom and to learn some of life’s lessons that you can’t learn from lectures. “As a new student, I wanted to find out about all the organizations that are here to help support my academic success. I got involved because their missions and causes were near to my heart.”

From there, she began volunteering with several organizations on and off campus while accumulating hours in the Community Engagement Navigator (accessible via uoZone). She volunteers on campus with the University of Ottawa’s Haitian Students Club and UNICEF Club, in addition to being involved off campus with the Regroupement affaires femmes (RAF). These organizations may have different missions, but each of them allows Nathalie to examine issues related to social justice and equality. “All the volunteering I do is a learning opportunity and is helping me prepare for the job market once I graduate. For example, I’ve always wanted to work with homeless people so I can better understand the social inequality related to housing in our society. Recently I was able to do 30 hours with Gîte Ami in Gatineau. This made it possible for me to meet some extraordinary people and learn a lot about how a shelter works. I helped prepare the lunches and organized and tidied up clothing donations received during the holidays. I plan to do this again next year!”

Nathalie shared just what an impact community involvement can have on someone. She fondly remembers when she herself arrived in Canada and how challenging it was for her to go outside in the bitter cold during the winter months. Nonetheless, she decided she was going to get involved with Ottawa’s Winterlude. “I’m proud of that day…not only for the help I gave to the children but also for the rising to the challenge of spending an entire day out in the cold. Those were the three best days since I had arrived in Canada.” All these experiences have allowed Nathalie to find her place in the University community. “Volunteering whether on or off campus allows you to grow and, by doing meaningful and lasting things certainly helps you enjoy your university years even more.” She recommends that all students take advantage of volunteer opportunities to follow their passions all while developing helpful skills. Because of her passion, curiosity and ongoing commitment to important causes, we’ve chosen Nathalie Vilgrain as our volunteer of the month for May 2018.

By: Morgan Oda 

April 2018 - Kaylene Ponto

Student of the Month Kaylene Ponto smiling in front of Tabaret Hall wall

Helping people and self-improvement were the driving factors that led Kaylene Ponto to start volunteering. She was unsure what to study: she considered environmental economics, indigenous studies, and everything in between, but eventually she realized that she could do much more of what she wanted if she majored in public administration and minored in communications.

Kaylene Ponto has always found ways of giving back to her community, and by second year, she had selected a Community Service Learning (CSL) placement in an indigenous women’s shelter as part of an introductory course on women, gender and feminism (FEM1101). Coming from Alberta, which has a large indigenous population, she was somewhat familiar with this issue and she wanted to give a bit of her time to help. She describes it as one of her best experiences.  The women, staff and volunteers cooked, crafted and learned a few words of Ojibwe together. She listened to the women’s stories and learned about aspects of their culture. The placement affected her deeply; she made new friends and given that this was her first volunteer experience through the University, she described it as very rewarding.

Kaylene also explored other paths: “Originally, I thought I wanted to study environmental economics, and that’s why I looked for placements that involved the environment.” But in doing so, she explored not just environmental issues: she discovered a whole new aspect of university, namely its various clubs and associations. “Since I wasn’t from here, it was difficult for me to know what was going on, so it was a nice way to get to know more people.” She signed up for another CSL placement, this time with uOttawa’s Office of Campus Sustainability, volunteering as a green rep and on Muggy Mondays. She loved it.

Given that Kaylene is minoring in communications, she wanted to gain more practical experience in that field. So in the fall of 2017, she volunteered again, this time as a communication and marketing strategist for Diplomat, a magazine that serves the diplomatic community in the Benelux region and whose team members are located in different cities and countries. During this assignment, she contacted universities across Canada, learned a lot about social media, and suggested improvements to the magazine’s website. She worked remotely from home, which really honed her organizational and time-management skills. Her supervisor, uOttawa alumna Jillian Fernandes, has only praise for Kaylene’s efforts: “We were very, very pleased with her work and find her to be very creative, dependable and a good independent worker as well. She has definitely been an asset to our team.”

In the winter 2018 term, as part of a political science course, Kaylene Ponto undertook another CSL placement.  In view of her years of extensive volunteer experience, and her passion for developing her skills while giving back, the Michaëlle Jean Centre for Global and Community Engagement would like to congratulate her on her achievements and has selected her to be their volunteer of the month for April 2018.

By : Ines Sayadi

March 2018 - Benjamin Doudard

Volunteer of the month, Benjamin Doudard smiling in front of a map of the World

March is Mois de la francophonie at the University of Ottawa! And this is why we’re introducing you to a student whose desire to both protect and promote the French language has been an integral part of his community engagement journey.

For Benjamin Doudard, a fourth-year communication and political science student, community engagement is a big part of his everyday life. In 2017, Benjamin sat on the board of directors for the Franco-Ontarian students’ association (RÉFO). This experience, his first on a board of directors, allowed him to combine his passion for politics with his desire to defend the French language in Ontario. “RÉFO organizes activities in all the major centres in the province. And what’s really great is that they aren’t only for francophone students—those learning French are always welcome to attend too!”

Benjamin is also active with other not-for-profit organizations, including the Fédération de la jeunesse franco-ontarienne, the Fédération de la jeunesse canadienne-française (FJCF) and the Association des professionnels de la chanson et de la musique. In January of this year, he acted as chair at FJCF’s French-language youth parliament event, which brings together young francophones from across the country. Here on campus, Benjamin also volunteered as a writer for la Rotonde, the University of Ottawa’s independent French newspaper.

“Giving my time is a good way to help communities reach common goals,” Benjamin says. He believes that his community engagement experiences have allowed him to not only gain knowledge that he couldn’t have acquired in the classroom but also expand his network and build professional relationships.

Currently on an exchange in Colombia, Benjamin has no intention of slowing down on the community engagement front. Although his main focus is defending the French language in Ontario, he also realizes that “there are causes that are common to all of us just about everywhere—poverty, social injustice and food insecurity, for example.” He also hopes to find some international organizations he can give his time to but, at the same time, is cognisant of the risks of voluntourism. He recommends that students interested in doing work with an international organization should fully research the partner organization to make sure their efforts truly benefit the members of their particular community.

Thanks to Benjamin Doudard’s outstanding commitment and service, he was the recipient of a Gilles G. Patry Student Engagement award in the fall of 2017. In addition, the Michaëlle Jean Centre for Global and Community Engagement is proud to name Benjamin its March 2018 volunteer of the month for his exceptional contributions.

By : Marie-Laure Riel 

February 2018 - Jesse Lesniowski

Student Jesse Lesniowski posing in front of a wall at Tabaret Hall

In Grade 11, Jesse was involved in a terrible car accident. After this life-changing event, he set himself the goal of finishing high school and going on to University. In the first year of his Honours BSc in Environmental Science, he focused on his studies—volunteering wasn’t even on his mind. When he realized that he had some extra time on his hands, he started writing again, a hobby he defines as “liberating.” He heard about a writing opportunity with the Her Campus online magazine and took it on. Taking that volunteer placement was a defining moment in his university experience. He learned that he could do much more than just study, and that’s when he started seeing another side to the university life. He decided to run as the environmental science representative in the Science Student Association. He won and describes his time in that position as very enlightening. He then founded the Environmental Science Association and says it was one of his best achievements. “It’s a very rewarding experience, you get to be the face of the program, people come to you for help, and it’s very important for me to help these first-year students get on and about and create bonds and friendships. Environmental science is a very small program, so it’s important for everyone to get along and to get to know each other—and that’s what the Association is for. We started with only me and another student as executives, and from there we grew to four members and now we have nine. It’s something I am really proud of.”

For Jesse, community engagement is simply to expand your knowledge and passions and pass them on to other people. “I’m passionate about the environment, but I’m also passionate about creating connections with people, building close relationships with them. The environmental science program makes us more inclined to create links, friendships, etc.” He thinks that creativity is key when we want to engage in volunteering of this type. “When you have exciting goals and objectives, as well as strong convictions, people will get involved with you and support you.” Being outgoing and willing to meet and talk with people are important assets as well. He describes his student association as open to everyone. “If you’re passionate, come meet us at our events! You’re part of the family.”

A last piece of wisdom from Jesse is to start small and get involved early. “When I started out, my goals was to find one thing that I wanted to do in the free time I had. That’s when I became a writer, and then, every single year, my motivation to volunteer just grew. It’s something you actually need to do to appreciate.”

The Centre is proud of Jesse and his accomplishments, which are now all recorded in his co-curricular record. This gives him the opportunity to add it to his resumé and make his experience stand out. We are, therefore, extremely proud to offer Jesse the Volunteer of the Month award for February 2018.

By : Ines Sayadi 

January 2018 - Stacey Olynick

Stacey Olynick Volunteer of The Month

For Stacey Olynick, a geography and environmental studies major, “volunteering while doing your degree is truly beneficial. The additional skills I acquired doing so have helped me overcome challenges and surpass what I thought I could do in all my projects.” In 2017, Stacey volunteered for numerous institutions, both on and off campus. She offered her time to uOttawa’s Ontario Interest Research Group (GRIPO), an experience that allowed her to explore different perspectives about modern views and human evolution. In the summer of 2017, she volunteered at Morgan Arboretum, a forested conservation area in Montreal. Her time there helped her develop entrepreneurship and leaderships skills.

In the winter of 2017, she did a Community Service Learning (CSL) placement as part of one of her geography classes. “I had become drawn to Aboriginal studies by volunteering with GRIPO. I was given the opportunity to volunteer over reading week in an Algonquin community that welcomes educational institutions to discover their culture and land-based practices.” Stacey and her classmates gained greater knowledge on the social, economic, political and environmental issues faced by members of the community over the last 50 years. Moved by her visit, Stacey continued volunteering in the greenhouse of the community during the summer. She started over 200 indoor seedlings that were heritage seeds from the 1900's. Most of the plants incorporated in the greenhouse had medicinal properties to conform in harmony with the Algonquin traditional practices.

Stacey Olynick Volunteer of The Month Green Space

In fall 2017 term, Stacey decided upon her honour’s thesis, the benefits and drawback of developing greenhouse projects in Aboriginal communities of Canada. Her main results will be used to develop a successful greenhouse project at the Mikizicec greenhouse in Kitcisakik, Quebec, in the summer of 2018. She will also give various workshops in the greenhouse. To carry out her greenhouse project, Stacey secured funding from the Alex Trebek Innovation and Challenge Fund in December 2017.

For offering her initiatives to create an environment for learning and exchange on traditional practices, we are pleased to offer Stacey the Volunteer of the Month award for January 2018.

December 2017 - Nicholas Doiron

Volunteer of the month

Some individuals start volunteering at a very young age, as was the case for Nicholas Doiron. This fourth-year public administration and political science student was involved in Scouts Canada from elementary school through to high school, and many Scout activities involved volunteering. He offered his time to soup kitchens, marathons and community clean-ups. During his second year of university, Nicholas got involved at St. Joe’s supper table, a placement he found through the Michaëlle Jean Centre for Global and Community Engagement. His interest in politics led him to volunteer with I vote – Je vote on campus, a platform that organizes different panels and activities that bring together students with individuals in politics.

In October 2016, Nicholas got involved with the Economic and Social Council of Ottawa-Carleton (CESOC), a non-profit organization supporting the reception and settlement of immigrants from various backgrounds. Nicholas was matched with a Syrian family of five, the Alis. Through this placement, Nicholas got to build a strong relationship with the Alis and, to this day, gets together with them every two weeks. They plan activities together, such as visiting museums or going to parks. During meals and discussions with the family, Nicholas has gained a considerable amount of knowledge about Syrian culture, Islam and the socio-political challenges facing Syria.

As Nicholas learned more about the complex challenges faced by Syrian refugees, he decided to push his involvement a step further. In May 2017, with the help of some friends, he launched UNITE/RÉUNI at uOttawa. This association is dedicated to assisting CESOC by uniting University of Ottawa students with new immigrants. Students are paired with a newcomer family or provide help in homework sessions. Thanks to the great teamwork between Zohra Azraoui (CESOC program coordinator), Nicholas and other uOttawa students, UNITE/RÉUNI has to date paired eight students with newcomer families and recruited about 10 volunteer tutors for the homework help sessions. This association will soon become an official uOttawa club!

Volunteering with CESOC has given Nicholas a unique perspective on his studies and career aspirations. Today, he’s more aware of the crisis and all that’s happening in Syria and how Canada is dealing with the influx of refugees into this country. Currently, there are various administrative constraints in the Department of Justice related to refugee cases recently, since the number of asylum seekers and refugees began rapidly increasing. As a student interested in attending law school, learning more about these issues has inspired Nicholas to consider pursuing a law career related to refugees. According to this student, community engagement means “getting involved in your community where there is an actual need, not simply volunteering to include experience in your resume.” He encourages other students to find a cause they’re truly passionate about to start volunteering. This way, “you’ll also be able to give the most of yourself and get the most out of that experience.” For students interested in volunteering with the newcomer community, Nicholas suggests they contact UNITE/RÉUNI (reuni.unite@gmail.com) for details on how to get involved.

We are pleased to name Nicholas as Volunteer of the Month for December 2017 for going the extra mile after completing a placement in 2016 by getting involved with CESOC, for recruiting uOttawa students and for helping newcomers feel welcomed in Ottawa.

November 2017 - Emma Bodoni

Emma Bodoni - Volunteer of the Month November 2017

For Emma Bodoni, community engagement means “participating in and putting forward, either as an individual or a collective, efforts to build lasting, sustainable relationships with your community to help reduce social, economic and political inequalities and disparities.” This fourth year international development and globalization student (minoring in political science) started volunteering in high school organizing volleyball tournaments and getting involved in her neighborhood. After her first year of university, she volunteered in San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) at an art coop for indigenous Mexican children, which further sparked her passion for community engagement. 

During her studies at the University of Ottawa, Emma completed the Community Service Learning program (CSL) twice. Her first placement, at ACORN Canada, was in 2014, when she worked as an event planning assistant and fundraiser. She is currently completing a second placement this fall as an international researcher and organizer for ACORN International. She has had the opportunity to work on an American campaign called “Home Savers,” which supports research on low-income communities confronting barriers to home ownership and regionally-specific housing inequities. As part of the Days of Service placements offered by our centre, Emma also volunteered at the St. Joe’s supper table, where she helped refurbish and paint the foyer as well as a fence.

Through her volunteering experience, Emma has developed communications and leadership skills. She has put theories learned in class into practice. She has learned not only about how NGOs function, but also about the importance of civil society in filling the gaps in a region by providing social services and encouraging participation in collective political action.  Her volunteer work has given her a clearer perspective on her career aspirations: Emma is interested in pursuing research with grassroots organizations as well as governmental institutions in the area of international affairs.

Emma’s advice to other uOttawa students who are considering volunteering but don’t know where to start is to find a cause they are passionate about and join an organization or a movement working on it. If you have a busy schedule but still wish to volunteer, Emma also suggests checking out the Days of Service, which allow students to volunteer for a day or less to meet the needs of a local community partner.

Emma also warns students about the dangers of “voluntourism,”  volunteering abroad just for the fun of travelling. And given the material advantages and leverage international NGOs sometimes have compared to the countries they operate in, she suggests keeping a critical perspective and “ask(ing) yourself whether or not you are participating in meaningful global citizenship or if your impact is perpetuating the existence of unequal power dynamics.”

For her community engagement, through CSL and Days of Service placements, her global perspective on volunteering as well as her great advice, we are pleased to name Emma Bodoni Volunteer of the Month for November 2017. 

October 2017 - Lise Viviane Rurangwa

Volunteer of the Month, October 2017 - Lise Viviane Rurangwa

Lise Viviane Rurangwa is a fourth-year student completing a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry with a minor in English as a second language. For her, community engagement means building skills to benefit the community while gaining abilities in a desired field.

Lise Viviane began volunteering at age 12, when she joined an association of Rwanda guides. Through this organization, she became involved in environmental causes and helped build facilities for at-risk individuals. She adopted a fundamental value at this young age, namely that of using her knowledge and skills to benefit others and to continuously improve the world for current and future generations.

Once she was in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, she continued to volunteer, serving as a receptionist with the Saint-Louis-Marie de Montfort parish and in supporting roles with the Salon du livre de l’Outaouais, the Jeux de la francophonie canadienne and the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. In 2017, she has volunteered as a programming assistant at the Michaëlle Jean Centre for Global and Community Engagement (MJCGCE), an administrative assistant with the Canadian AIDS Society, as an organizer helping out at the Faculty of Engineering’s probability and statistics competition, and as a support staff member of Food Truck Social and Flea Market to benefit the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation.

Lise Viviane says that thanks to her volunteer experiences, she has honed her communication, organizational and research skills, and has become more independent. “In addition to expanding my network and exploring various career possibilities, volunteering has given me greater self-confidence,” she added.

She recommends that University of Ottawa students make the most of the services offered at the MJCGCE, since the Centre has numerous opportunities to work as a volunteer in various organizations.

We are proud of Lise Viviane Rurangwa’s dedication and passion for volunteering, and equally proud to select her as Volunteer of the Month for October 2017.

September 2017 - Sarah Twomey 

Sarah Twomey

Sarah Twomey is a fourth year nursing student who committed herself at a very young age to getting involved and helping others. In elementary school, she spearheaded environmental initiatives and in middle and high school, she was involved with her student council and philanthropic groups. Determined not only to give back to her local community, Sarah also volunteered internationally, building schools in Kenya, teaching English in Thailand and working as a nurse’s assistant in Nepal. She is currently volunteering with the Butterfly Children’s Hospices of China, a palliative care hospice, as the Canadian fundraising lead.

Through volunteering, Sarah was inspired to enrol in nursing school. And her commitment to volunteering has continued through her undergraduate studies. Over the past four years, she has volunteered with the University of Ottawa Dance Club, the Office of Campus Sustainability and the Undergraduate Nursing Student’s Association.

Sarah initially aimed to work either for a non-profit organization or in health care, but she has learned that she can do both simultaneously. For her, community engagement goes beyond simply getting involved — it is also becoming immersed in the organization you volunteer with. “The concept of community engagement varies with each organization, but in the end it’s all about contributing to a greater good and leaving an impact,  no matter the size,” she says.

Having discovered a passion and gained valuable skills through volunteering, Sarah encourages her peers to get involved as well: “When I look back on all the time I’ve spent volunteering, there is not one minute that I regret. You meet people, you discover passions, and if you’re lucky, you find your purpose in life,” she says. 

With her volunteering commitment, both here and abroad, Sarah is the perfect example of a global citizen. That’s why  we’re pleased to announce that Sarah Twomey is our Volunteer of the Month for September 2017.

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