Volunteering courageously: A young leader’s story

The blog post below was written by Lilia Zaharevia, a local youth superstar. She has been making waves in the community, using her courage, relationships and intelligence to put her insights about community needs into action. What a gift! I interviewed Lilia over email and she provided us with the following responses – complete with pearls of wisdom for anyone interested in being the change one wishes to see. You can find the InsideOUT website here and find them on twitter at @insideout_group 

My name is Lilia Zaharieva, I was born halfway across the world in Sofia Bulgaria but have long had the joy of calling Victoria home. I am a student at the University of Victoria studying child and youth care. If I ever get my undergrad, I would like to continue on to complete an MBA in business leadership or not-for-profit management. I think this would be a great base for a career in social innovation, which is my true passion.

My other great loves include the concocting and consumption of cupcakes- this I take very seriously in life. I also love hot yoga and have a unique talent for finding four-leaf clovers.

What made you get involved in the first place, and once you did get involved, what sustained your involvement?

I first got involved in the community because I was looking to make sense of the chaos in my own life. As I was growing up, my mom experienced the onset of mental illness. A few years later, I ended up in government care. These were both experiences that made me feel completely lost, powerless and alone. I did not know where to turn, how to be myself or how to move forward from these adversities. I felt quite sorry for myself! To be involved with volunteering was my attempt to find purpose and connection.

One day I simply approached a local branch of the BC Schizophrenia Society and talked with the Executive Director about my experiences, and she had some awesome ideas. I think that when you follow your heart amazing things happen. A few weeks after that meeting, I was suddenly doing research, grant writing, program planning and doing interviews in the media for the teen group that had grown as a seed from that meeting. Volunteering stretched my horizons and required skills of me that I never dreamed I would have had. It was scary in the beginning. I was so new and felt like I didn’t know what I was doing!

Looking back, I am so glad I made the leap. I ended up loving the work so much, that I took a year off of school to wholeheartedly pursue developing the group. It has changed completely from its early roots at the BCSS, and growth is always great. In that year, I got involved even more heavily in the world around me, thanks to the BC Federation of Youth in Care Networks. I was selected along with a handful of other BC youth to represent the province at a national conference to discuss the issues affecting young people in government care. I met people who shared my experiences, people from all over the nation! Most importantly, I saw that young people have the potential to work together to impact decision-makers. On the way home from the Ottawa conference, I decided to devote my future to this path. I applied to study Child and Youth Care at UVIC, and my course was set. I could not be happier to do something that fills my life with meaning and purpose. I look forward to many more days of advocacy and community development in my future.

What words of encouragement/advice would you have to share with other young people who want to make change (or volunteer) in their community?

I have two pieces of advice for young people wanting to make change. The first is to take time to know yourself and your values. Now look more closely, which of those values are truly yours? If they aren’t authentically yours, get rid of them. Letting go of the things that don’t matter makes room for the things that do. It is because of this strategy that I am pursuing a career that truly fits for me. Be yourself and no one else.

The second advice that I have for young people is very important. Trust yourself! If you are just beginning to get involved, you may not have the practical or academic knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that what you bring to the table is not valuable in itself. The skills will come as you move forward. Find a good mentor, someone that you trust and critically – someone that you admire as a person. Communicate with them clearly and often and never be afraid to ask questions.

But at the end of the day, trust yourself. Your ideas are your own, and not something to be commodified. I have gotten to the place that I am from taking in the advice of the wonderful people around me, but in always giving my gut the final say. It has never failed me.

Here is one of my favourite tools, an online resource that supports and inspires young social innovators to dream big and take action. I turn to SoJo for ideas and solutions to my roadblocks. I recommend it to any young person looking to make a change in the community! http://www.thesojo.net/

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