Julia MacLean has earned a well-deserved reputation as an invaluable member of the YMCA’s volunteer team.

The 23-year-old Dartmouth resident has been dedicating her time to the YMCA’s Child Care Centres, first on Cornwall Street in Halifax, and most recently at the Purdy’s Wharf Child Care Centre four days per week. The volunteer opportunity with the Child Care Centre has been a dream come true for Julia, who has always wanted to work with children.

“I like being with the children, and playing with them and helping with crafts and puzzles,” she says of her time in the Toddler 1 classroom. “I also help the children at nap time. I lay them on their beds. Sometimes when a child can’t sleep I sit with them and pat their backs and say, ‘Night, night’. It helps and it works.

“It makes me happy, and it makes the kids happy.”

Julia also has a soft spot for the YMCA’s Grand Friends program, which brings together children at the YMCA with residents at the Veterans Memorial Building twice a week. She said the part she enjoys the most is helping the younger participants form relationships, and complete activities with the seniors.

Julia’s enthusiasm for her volunteer role comes as no surprise to her mother, Shannon, who says her daughter has always displayed an aptitude for working with children, and she loves it, which makes it particularly rewarding.

She added watching Julia, who has an intellectual disability, find a sense of self, in part through her volunteer role at the YMCA, is a blessing.

“Julia excels in emotional intelligence, and she’s very good at reading people and children in particular,” she says. “That’s a big part of who she is – wanting to help people. Being in the daycare setting empowers her in a way because in a lot of places she doesn’t feel like she has any power. The kids look up to her. They ask her for things, and she can help them. That’s very important for her.”

Shannon says she is not surprised that assisting with the Grand Friends program is one of the highlights of Julia’s volunteer experience, because building relationships is very important to her daughter.

“That’s what she focuses on,” she says. “The general population measures success in different ways. For Julia, success is having friends and helping people feel good. For her it’s about connections.  I think helping to bring seniors and younger people, who are both from vulnerable populations, together makes her very happy.”

Julia’s volunteer activities are not limited to the Y. She also teaches Sunday school to toddlers at Woodlawn United Church, and is an accomplished Special Olympics athlete in running, bowling and swimming, and she competes at the provincial level in the latter sport.  She loves animals, and is an avid crafter and loves to work on large puzzles. She often brings ideas from her own crafting to the Child Care Centre so the teachers can implement them with the children.

“It feels good when they take my ideas,” she says. “I like going in because the children all say, ‘Julia!’ and they’re excited to see me. If I didn’t go, I would miss it. I would be bored. The teachers would miss me, and the children miss me when I’m not there.”

Shannon says the feeling of inclusion Julia experiences in her volunteer work is priceless to her daughter.

“It’s an important part of her life – that she has somewhere where she feels valued and her work is important,” she says. “That gives her a real sense of self-worth and self-confidence that would be very difficult to have if she didn’t have that sort of situation.”

Judy Hebert, Director of the YMCA’s Purdy’s Wharf Child Care Centre, says Julia is an extremely important member of the Centre’s volunteer contingent.

“She’s invaluable,” she says, adding that Julia volunteers in the busy Toddler Room with typically 11 children. “She interacts well with the children, and is so involved and relaxed with them. Julia is awesome, and she always has a smile on her face!”