by Vanessa Wen
Ryan Piché and his mother, Anda, walk side by side down Holmwood Avenue towards Lansdowne Park, discussing his day at hockey camp, how much he wants a dog and all the sports he plays.
That is as far as the conversation goes before it becomes apparent that Ryan has had many more experiences than most 11-year-olds. As they walk past a busy softball game, the discussion quickly turns to the travels they have done – Cuba, Costa Rica, and next year Ecuador to volunteer with people who are less fortunate.
“Every March break we want to do something interesting to either help with things, or to give or teach,” says Ryan, who is starting Grade 6 in the fall.
Ryan has taken his own initiative to help others, but his affinity for volunteer work stems from Anda who grew up in Romania, an eastern European country that endured decades of communist oppression during the second half of the 20th century. Her family struggled for basic necessities like food, and eventually immigrated to Canada. Anda wants to raise Ryan to understand how people live in different parts of the world.
“We thought, we have too much and others don’t have enough. And I wanted for Ryan to see that,” she explains.
This past March break, the pair spent a week in Costa Rica working on a turtle conservation project. While there, they brought medical supplies via the initiative Not Just Tourists. Since the late 1990s, the not-for-profit group has been sending medical supplies to clinics in places of need. Not Just Tourists receives donated suitcases and fills them with items in demand, such as antibiotics, gloves, and wound care kits.
“People are usually really happy to see that. When we went to Costa Rica, lots of people would get cuts and stuff and wouldn’t have anything to cover them with. We brought bandages, syringes and lots of other medicine,” says Ryan.
Despite facing questions at the airport about their extra bags, Ryan and Anda have also brought personal belongings to give away. Ryan is usually the first one to volunteer his toys and clothes to take to their next destination.
“Two years ago we went to this village with our friend in Cuba,” he recounts with excitement. “My mom had a bag with all the clothes and we were giving them to the kids, and everyone was calling her Santa Clothes because she was giving away all the clothes. They loved it, and one kid even got the bag that was holding the clothes. He was really happy.”
In addition to international work, Ryan’s affinity for giving became locally apparent when he spent three months last fall organizing a fundraising concert for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ottawa (BBBSO). Ryan walked up and down Bank Street asking for donations for the benefit, raising $2,500 to match a child with a mentor. He and his relatives spent hours making over 400 cabbage rolls, with meat donated from the Glebe Meat Market, to serve at the event.
Despite the considerable amount of work, Ryan felt it was important to give back, as he himself is part of the BBBSO program. Two years ago, Ryan was matched with Matt, 30, who serves as a role model and friend.
“Mentors teach by example the importance of giving and giving back, of staying in school and having respect for family, peers and community,” explains Anda.
Even though Anda and Matt will continue guiding Ryan, Anda hopes her son will keep pursuing this type of work independently as he sees people living in challenging circumstances.
“These days we travel around the world and we see that that thing, it still exists,” she says. “Being in a position of having more these days, it’s always sad to see something go to waste as opposed to putting it in good hands.”
Anda says that what’s important is that Ryan enjoys what he’s doing.
“I like helping the environment and helping people, whether it’s cleaning up on the street or helping people in need. It makes me feel good to help someone,” says Ryan.
And while Anda values the opportunity their experiences have given them to connect, she knows Ryan is still a kid.
“I have some high hopes for him. He’s capable. I’ve always been throwing him to the lions, and he’s proven that he can do it.”
Vanessa Wen is a long-time Glebe resident who grew up delivering the Glebe Report as a volunteer carrier.