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She pays to volunteer
11 April 2006
by Nina Dragicevic

Bridget Stirling hopes to travel to Grenada as a volunteer in a six-week project for hurricane recovery and disaster preparedness. (Courtesy:Nina Dracicevic/Metro Toronto)Bridget Stirling hopes to travel to Grenada as a volunteer in a six-week project for hurricane recovery and disaster preparedness. (Courtesy:Nina Dracicevic/Metro Toronto)
Toronto, Canada: The walls of Toronto’s Youth Challenge International office are filled with maps and flags of the countries where their volunteers will go, and where they’ve been. For Bridget Stirling, they hold the promise of a new life working overseas.

As recently as a year and a half ago, Stirling, 26, felt aimless in life and work. “I was stumbling around, looking for a path,” she says. “I was just making money and I wasn’t happy — I felt as if I was merely existing. I wanted to find a way to give back. When the tsunami hit, it got me thinking.”

The devastation and despair of the international crisis, followed by Hurricane Katrina, seemed to call to Stirling.

“I saw it unfolding on television,” she says, “and the more I saw, the more I wanted to be there.”

Stirling went “window shopping” at the Go Abroad Fair and was offered a flyer from Youth Challenge International (YCI), a non-profit youth development and educational institution that gives volunteers experience overseas. Stirling decided that what she wanted to do was “help those that need help the most,” and where she wanted to be was on the front lines.

Stirling enrolled in Fundraising and Volunteer Management at George Brown College and started volunteering. Today, she offers her time to a local humanitarian organization where she serves meals for those who cannot afford one, helps the homeless during cold weather alerts and provides emergency response relief. She hopes going to college and volunteering will help her get into International Development Studies at the University of Toronto one day.

But while working locally, Stirling got a taste of where she really wanted to be. “In five to 10 years, I’d love to be working overseas on the frontlines,” she says. “Working to see progress and being a part of something. I want to bring the goodwill of Canadians to other countries.”

When Stirling was accepted by YCI into a six-week project in Grenada, where she will work on hurricane recovery and disaster preparedness, she saw the next phase in her life opening before her.

The costs are considerable — currently, Stirling is trying to raise $4,500 to cover flight, accommodations and transportation. She notes wryly that some of her friends were surprised she would pay to volunteer. But for Stirling, the end would be worth whatever means. “A couple days ago, I really started to wonder: can I afford to go? But then I thought, can I afford not to go?”