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  • Writer's pictureAmrita Maharaj-Dube

Finding purpose through volunteering

Moving2Canada Part 2

I was inspired to write this story after reading Héctor García and Francesc Miralles' Ikigai - The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.

Years ago when I landed at Toronto Pearson as a nervous immigrant, I was desperate for the universe to show me my purpose. It's a frightful quest plunging into a world of unknowns – the job market, anchoring yourself in a new community, finding lasting friendships in your mid 30s, and most importantly, using your passions and skills to give back. The last one was especially important to me.

Back in Trinidad, my family's life was steeped in hardship. Despite this reality, my parents were magicians who stretched the smallest amounts of money. After decades of trying to unlock their mystery, I finally found their secret to happiness and eventual success - giving back. They always believed in the circular system of 'karma' - do good, and good things will come back to you. For several years, hundreds of people turned up at our modest doorsteps and were fed meals prepared in gigantic pots by my parents and elders in the community. Even with shallow pockets, my parents always found ways to give abundantly. I never understood how they entrusted their faith in this system.

Now, since yours truly only learned to cook Trinidadian food (the proper, authentic way) during the pandemic, I instantly ruled out cooking as my form of community service. I mean, in the Caribbean we eyeball ingredient quantities. I was terrified that I'd add 73 grains of salt instead of 76 to any pot, followed by gasps of disapproval from my mother and entire ancestral lineage. Oh well...

But I love to write. It is therapeutic. It inspires. It makes me feel that I could have a presence in this world. It’s always been part of my purpose in Trinidad. I needed to find a way to not only build a meaningful career out of writing, but to use it to find my true purpose. This goes back to a concept in the book - finding your ikigai ; loosely translating to "making life worthwhile" or "reason for living." It’s the intersection of four pillars: what you love, what the world needs, what you can be paid for, and what you're good at. Little did I know that a quaint town called Elmira would be part of my quest.

I remembered the first time driving there during my house search. Uneasiness crept up my spine as I drove past my comfort zone unto Highway 85 North, staring at farmlands, towering silos, and buggies and horses. Since moving to Canada, I had built my life around Kitchener and the occasional trips to Toronto and Niagara; I couldn't relinquish the buzz of city life.

Elmira felt so foreign yet strangely familiar. My parents were once farmers, rearing cows and planting endless fruit trees around the house. We knew how to live off the land.

When I eventually moved into my home, I was overwhelmed by a deep sense of displacement and discomfort. After all, my family had moved a total of four times in18 months. We were exhausted. One day, I flipped open my laptop with piles of unopened boxes still around me and started searching for volunteer opportunities.

That's when I came across Elmira District Community Living (EDCL) - an organization that supports persons living with intellectual disabilities. I'll confess - I knew nothing about this field. Growing up, the entire discourse on developmental disabilities was reduced to whispers; such was the grip of stigma in a rural Caribbean setting. I remembered in elementary school I had a classmate with an intellectual disability. I never knew what it was; I just remembered the ridicule she faced and ways our education system failed to make her shine (she did have a beautiful smile).

I filled out my volunteer application to be a virtual reader or walking companion, drove back to Kitchener for my police record check, and anxiously awaited a response. A week later, Jenn Maxwell, the Volunteer Coordinator reached out to me. "Would you like to read to someone?" she asked. I instantly said yes. As a child, my parents invested in an encyclopedia set that became my world. After school, I loved the getting lost in the pages of each volume. Reading lit up my life and I wanted to do the same for someone else.

A few weeks later I was introduced to the person I'd be reading to, and there it all began. We found a joyful book, and each week I hopped online and read for one hour as I watched the person on the other end draw characters from the story. It was the beginning of a special friendship. I was starting to find a way to add value to someone's life. After each session, the person would share their own interpretation of the story, with drawings of abstract human figures that became more elaborate over time. My heart was becoming full.

As time flew by, I started learning more about my new home from Community Living staff. The history of Elmira and EDCL. The needs of persons living with intellectual disabilities. The best part of it all; my volunteer role evolved to include writing.

It’s an indescribable feeling when you find a way to use your skills and passions for a meaningful cause. Now I know the answer to my question – “Why Elmira?” I feel like I’m finally starting to find my ikigai

“…our ikigai is the reason we get up in the morning. Having a clearly defined ikigai brings satisfaction, happiness and meaning to our lives.”


From the book Ikigai - The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.

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