Eighteen young Canadian and South African volunteers are hard at work on the Coast, donating 4,000 hours of labour and skills to the community as they learn how to create more just, sustainable communities.
"We use the community as our classroom," said Christine Añonuevo, co-ordinator for the Canada World Youth (CWY) program.
The participants, nine from Canada and nine from South Africa, are between 17 and 24 years old. They arrived on the Coast Aug. 27 and leave Nov. 15 for Athlone, South Africa, a township just outside Cape Town, where they'll complete the second half of their six-month program.
Añonuevo said CWY operates its exchanges in 30 Canadian communities and that some groups focus on gender, some on environmental sustainability and some - like the group currently on the Sunshine Coast - on health.
The volunteers spend three days a week on volunteer placement at social service non-profit organizations such as Shorncliffe, Totem Lodge, Sunshine Coast Community Services Society's transition house, the Food Bank and the Sunshine Coast Association for Community Living.
She said the fourth day, the youth spend researching how one of the United Nations' millennium development goals - for example, to eradicate poverty or combat HIV/AIDS - is being carried out by community organizations, and they do experiential activities dealing with that topic. And the fifth day is a community action day when the group joins local community members to work on a local project - such as putting in a garden at Shorncliffe.
While on the Coast, the volunteers stay with host families, which allows them to learn about local culture first-hand. And beyond the service and justice components of the program, she said, CWY is about relationship-building and becoming comfortable with diversity.
"It's about respect - how, on an everyday level, do we respect people who have different values?" she explained. "They come from all these different backgrounds and how can we relax around diversity and difference and work together to achieve a common goal?"
And so far, Añonuevo said, both the volunteers and host families are having rich, memorable experiences.
Torontonian participant Effy Varoutas said she signed up for the program to get some hands-on experience to complement her university studies and to be "stretched, pushed and pulled in many ways."
"I felt that I needed to experience some of the things I had studied in school, relating to the social and environmental issues we face, before I could be an effective agent of change in our society," she said.
And already, Varoutas said, she's having epiphanies. She's realized, for example, the key role communication plays in overcoming vast fundamental differences between cultures.
"I believe if we could eloquently communicate our perceptions and beliefs, we would eventually understand each other and change our individual world views and agree on a common goal for the program, for our countries, for the world," she said.
Participant Kanyisa Nagu from Cape Town said she's also being stretched by her experiences on the Coast.
"I see, touch, taste, hear and experience new things on a daily basis," she said. "This experience alone has taught me so much, sharpened my personal skills and changed my perception on life and certain topics of interest on life."
The participants also say they've been struck by the wildness and beauty of the Coast.
"My month on the Sunshine Coast has been an experience, to say the least," Ottawa's Ayaan Ateye said. "From the numerous bear and deer sightings, the mountains, the ocean view everywhere you turn - and the stars so bright, they take your breath away."