A History of Being There For Each Other: Q&A with Kayla Smyth from Volunteer & Community Support Services

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Photo of peer support volunteer trainees on Zoom

Picture: Kayla recently trained PAWS pet assistance and Shanti peer support volunteers via Zoom.

We caught up with Kayla Smyth, volunteer services coordinator for Shanti and PAWS, to discuss Shanti’s role in taking care of the caretakers. In her role, Kayla has long served as a Shanti support group facilitator and created important support systems for our volunteers. If you are a PAWS pet assistance volunteer, chances are you have connected with Kayla or even attended one of her volunteer trainings.

Tell us more about Shanti and PAWS’ volunteer support groups.

Volunteer support groups are for the peer support volunteers that are matched with a client from one of our programs, providing one-on-one emotional and practical support. The support group is a safe place to be with your fellow peers who are doing the same work, which can be emotionally challenging at times. It is rare to be with a group of people who actually understand the experience of being a peer support volunteer….We open up the space for interactive discussion, sharing our experiences (what’s working/not working) and provide one another with emotional support and/or feedback on how to navigate various situations. We also laugh, make jokes, and tell funny stories…it isn’t all doom and gloom. We make it fun too! With everything going on in the world, it’s so important to stay connected and foster community, now more than ever. It is also important to find the joy and laugh together in solidarity.

How long has Shanti offered volunteer support groups?

Since the beginning of Shanti, really. Taking care of our caretakers has always been a huge priority at Shanti and the work we do. Especially in the height of the AIDS epidemic, there was an immense amount of loss and grief in the community. Peer support groups were a vital part of self-care and healing. It is a very special space to be with people who truly understand what you are going through – a community you can trust and turn to. And you don’t feel so alone in the process.

Which support groups do you facilitate?

I facilitate a peer support volunteer group, once a month, with Stanley Yee, a former PSV, a close friend, and now a Shanti board member. We have new and long-term peer support volunteers attend group – some PSVs have been matched with multiple clients and have been a volunteer for over 8 years. I love that we have a diverse group of volunteers because they can offer a comprehensive perspective and insight for our new volunteers that are just stepping into the role.

Why is it important we offer this space?

In group, the main purpose is to talk about our client relationship, but we also open the space to vent about anything else coming up in our personal life. It isn’t structured – everyone is free to bring up anything on their mind. We are in some trying times, to say the least – our clients, volunteers, myself, Shanti staff – we are all feeling the emotional weight of the world that we can’t (and shouldn’t have to) carry on our own. Support group offers a safe space to take some load off the shoulders and allow others to help.

As a caretaker, it can be very difficult to ask or accept help from others – we are always the one helping! Support groups gives us permission to let go and accept. Even if a match is going wonderfully and there is nothing to report, we still encourage volunteers to come to support group so they can listen and be there for their fellow volunteers who may be going through a lot. It is a special space for self-reflection, community, insight, and discussion around the incredibly rewarding work we do, that can also be taxing at times.

I can speak for myself – support group has been a huge source of self-care in my life and the 5 years as a peer support volunteer. I cherish the opportunity to vent and reflect with a safe group of people that genuinely care and understand. It has gotten me through some rough times, that’s for sure.

Is there anything else you would like the audience to know about support groups or volunteer & community support services at Shanti and PAWS?

I am always so blown away that every peer support training we facilitate (6x a year) is full. There are so many people in the community who want to give back and make an impact. They are all willing to be vulnerable and learn from one another. It definitely restores my hope for humanity. How often are you sitting in a room with a culturally diverse group of people who share the same intention to serve the community as you? It is powerful. I am honored to be a part of this program and Shanti.

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