After a smaller turnout for its first virtual volunteer fair of the pandemic, Ignite Fair returned this month with a more interactive version that tripled the scale of its previous real-life versions.
Once contained by the maximum capacity for an exhibition-style event of around 200 people at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts, the GTA-based outfit this month hosted two virtual Saturday events that each brought in at least 300 students, some from as far afield as the United States and British Columbia.
“It's more similar to attending the fair in person, and we really wanted to mirror that type of real-world experience for attendees because it makes it a lot more engaging and a lot more exciting for them,” said Angelina Zheng, a Grade 12 student and co-chair of the organization, about the upgraded model.
While the 2020 version was entirely on Zoom, the 2021 one incorporated Gather, a virtual environment in which participants can move around various rooms and access documents such as pamphlets and brochures or walk up to other avatars in the space to interact with them, including by joining a video call.
High school students in Ontario typically have to complete 40 hours of volunteer work to graduate (reduced to 20 hours for those graduating in the 2021-22 school year), but Zheng says many go beyond that requirement hoping it will help with university admissions.
That’s been made more difficult since COVID-19, which has meant opportunities that cannot transfer from face-to-face to virtual versions have disappeared and students have had less access to guidance counsellors or even peer discussions about what is available.
“None of these ways of finding opportunities are present when you're at home by yourself and you don't have that avenue,” she said, adding it was one of their main reasons to expand the fair’s reach this year.
The first Ignite event this year was for students to access non-profit volunteer opportunities where you don't need a lot of experience or expertise, such as delivering food at a food bank. The second Saturday was focused on leadership positions in youth-led organizations with more opportunity to implement a vision.
Zheng said the feedback they have received since has been mostly positive, with attendees appreciative that the space was split into subsections by interest (arts and culture, for example, or environment and animals) and more interactive, including a room to chill out in and access mental health resources.
Some said it took some time to get used to navigating the virtual world and Zheng said they would plan to provide better instructions if they stick with the platform next year. In any case, they will be sticking with a virtual component even if it’s deemed safe to hold in-person.
Ignite Fair is a partnership between Pledges for Change, a youth-led group, and Volunteer Toronto, which provides most of its funding.
While the project started out involving schools in the York Region north of Toronto, its 12 executives now come from across the Greater Toronto Area including Halton, Peel, York, and Toronto school boards, and Ignite hopes to add student executives from elsewhere in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia as they expand across the country.
Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer