Friday, 8 July 2011

Volunteering in the subarctic

Valerie and I were led to believe that we'd be packing boxes for the move into the brand new $15 million studies centre which was being built next door, and after that moving on to kitchen duties. There was an element of truth in that.

The first week was indeed spent packing boxes, twiddling our thumbs while pondering about what to next, washing the odd dish and once again wondering what to do next. In our second week at the studies centre we found ourselves working more hours than the paid staff- six days, from 8.00 until 4.00 (thankfully we soon after started working the 36 hours a week we were meant to be doing when Heidi came back from business in Winnipeg). Our main duty it now emerged was to be cleaning all the dry wall dust from the new studies centre with water/vinegar solution and makeshift tools made from old towels and a sander.

Donning a variety of inventive head garments and our soon to be grubby clothes we set swiftly to work with the aid of music. Big Sir (Peter, the site foreman) had other ideas though and came to ask us how we could think with this noise on, to which Valerie quickly replied that we didn't need to think. After dwelling on it for a day, Big Sir eventually plucked up the courage to tackle the formidable Valerie again. He told us to turn the music down, because the builders weren't allowed music on whilst working. In solidarity we turned our music off and our work pace slowed dramatically. Instead of music poor Valerie had to put up with me whistling 'like a bloke'.

When sneaky Pete (a local builder) wasn't jumping out at us from all manner of places and giving Valerie a fright we were cleaning. Cleaning windows, cleaning cupboards, cleaning walls, cleaning sinks, cleaning toilets, cleaning showers, cleaning furniture and cleaning floors. All of this while breathing in copious amounts of drywall dust. Little Sir (Mike, the director of the field studies centre) says that if we are going to sue the studies centre we should sue in an English court, because he wants to see the people wearing wigs. We'll bear that in mind...We had a system going- Valerie would chief cleaner of cupboards, light fittings, shelves, windows and baseboards (Canadians don't understand what skirting boards are), while I would wipe down all the walls, clean under the desks, and hoover.

We started with all the bedrooms, then the bathrooms, the offices, lounges and classrooms, dining area, laboratories, stairs and corridors. Patsy (housekeeping) would help us when she wasn't running around the old building cleaning another set of toilets and bedrooms etc. and in the weeks before we moved Kelly (a volunteer from Ontario) and Lizzie (a volunteer from England).

There was an awful lot of dust and as we cleaned the builders still worked and created more dust in the rooms that we had already cleaned. We could never close a door and declare that room finished. It was hard at times to get much of a feeling of accomplishment. We were told that Big Sir and his team would clean up the mess in the 'clean' rooms behind themselves, only for him to declare that we had to do it. Most of the time it seemed that the builders hadn't even bothered sweeping up when they'd finished working there, and that Big Sir was getting them to do significantly less cleaning than they should have been.

We laughed a lot as we worked. And when we weren't laughing I was worrying why we weren't. Always at the back of our minds was CNSC burn-out. This little known disease is known to afflict volunteers as well as student staff at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. It was in our pre-arrival interviews that we first came to hear of this ailment, since Valerie and myself had both inquired about staying longer than the usual volunteer stay at the centre. We were told that volunteers are not normally allowed to stay much longer than five weeks due to risk of extreme burnout, but an exception could be made (my extension was until the 24th of June, but I managed to renegotiate once in situ).

Symptoms of Burnout (according to Robert)

  • Not being able to get up in the morning

  • Swearing at clients

  • Exhaustion

At times we were tired and would joke about having burnout. Valerie might even have been afflicted early on when her alarm clock didn't go off and she was quite a few minutes late for work. Kaleigh (student staff) still remains under observation for any trace of symptoms at the CNSC.

As more researchers arrived and then the guests conflicts of interests arose- dust v. dishes. The breakfast, lunch and evening dishes would mount and we'd need to clean those and clean the building. And meanwhile the move in date would move ever closer. We could never see us moving in on time, firstly since they hadn't finished building and secondly because we weren't finished with cleaning.

No-one ever told us when we were meant to be moving in. The researchers always seemed to know, but maybe we just hadn't been told, because we knew it wasn't going to happen. The move-in did eventually happen though, two weeks after it had been meant to.

Just before the move we had to go back to all the bedrooms, wipe away the dust and hoover the floors again. Adding insult to injury Little Sir handed us a note in the morning detailing (as if we didn't already know) which rooms we needed to clean. He had missed a few off the list...

In the evening Valerie, Kelly, Vanya (researcher) and I put the bunkbeds together, with assistance from Heidi and Little Sir. According to Valerie we were the 'Borg of beds' (reference lost on me...). As a reward Little Sir donated a few of his beers. Valerie and Vanya, aided by Kelly, proceeded to drink his entire case of beer, returning the empty box behind the door in the freezer room with a note- 'We drank it, we earnt it. Ta'. Perhaps Little Sir forgot about his beer in all the activity of the move, because he never did mention it.

So we moved. Moved boxes from the kitchen to a van, and then from the van to the new kitchen. The hardest part was trying to find a new place for everything that made sense. And once we were moved we were on full time dish washing duty and very occasionally let loose to make a salad, invent a tofu concoction or put Otis Spunkmeyer's frozen cookies in the oven. We also had to fold hoodies in the giftshop and stuff a large portion of the 5,000 invitations for the 'Grand Opening' into envelopes.

But it was mainly washing dishes. I washed dishes to the point where burnout almost became a reality and would have done if I hadn't had all the other subarctic wonders to keep me going.

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