By Liam McLean
Photos by Syed Mustafa
With a multitude of experiences ranging from volunteering in the North Pole to becoming a College Pro Painters franchise owner, Ciaran Olsen’s actions demonstrate an incredible passion for community engagement and social work. Ciaran originally pursued a degree in business at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) before deciding to switch to achieving a degree in social work, “I was studying business at school in UNBC and I’m just like reading accounting and human resource stuff and […] I’m just learning how to make money for the sake of making money,” said Ciaran when asked about his degree switch, “And I just sort of thought [about] what I’m really into in my life, and I was volunteering as a big brother up there, and I was about to go to Zambia for the first time.” Ever since he switched and completed his degree, Ciaran has focused all his efforts on community engagement and has volunteered for numerous initiatives in places such as Zambia, Nunavut, and the Philippines, bringing his passion for people and the youth to these distant and often poverty stricken communities. “It’s cool to be there to help,” said Ciaran about his motivations, “To me, it’s the best thing to do on the planet. Like, if you can help someone, it’s the best way you can live.”
Ciaran’s social work experiences have brought him to many distant communities. After graduating with his degree from UNBC, he joined the non-profit organization called Katimavik and left to Nunavut to become a project leader. There, he organized a house of 12 other youths working for Katimavik while also volunteering 40 hours a week in the community. He then became a child protection worker and moved further north to Grise Fiord on the tip of Ellesmere Island. After spending time in the far north, Ciaran eventually moved back to Prince George to pursue another youth initiative. “I worked at this youth therapy program for kids in jail in the wilderness [outside Prince George],” said Ciaran regarding his move back to BC, “So, instead of going to jail, it’s an alternative. I did that for like a year and half or two years.” He then returned for a second time to volunteer in Lusaka, Zambia. “Basically, we were working with kids over there who couldn’t afford to go to school,” said Ciaran when asked about volunteering in Zambia, “So, they had these community schools and you go there. I volunteered there and we played soccer and taught them cooking, [and] got some donations for them from over here.” Returning from Zambia, Ciaran began to work for College Pro Painters in Vancouver as a franchise owner. After volunteering for years, he wanted to learn how to operate and manage a business, one that could benefit the community it serves. Through the operation of his painting business, Ciaran feels like he is engaging with the community, stating that “I actually feel like I’m helping people, whether it’s employees by getting them money, giving them experience and confidence, or like helping a customer by giving them a good deal on a paint job and a really cool experience.” Although Ciaran has been focused on College Pro Painters since 2015, he still finds time to volunteer and give back to the community by playing basketball once a week in Burnaby with youth that are in jail. Last winter, he found time to go abroad and travelled to Tacloban City in the Philippines, a place heavily affected by a powerful storm. While in Tacloban City, he volunteered at a youth rehabilitation centre and taught people how to paint, aiding in the reconstruction effort following a disaster that killed thousands of people.
Volunteering abroad has given Ciaran an invaluable new perspective of life and a profound appreciation for the opportunities and goods we have available to us in Vancouver. “I see that there’s a lack of opportunity in these [distant] places and, for example, I’m being awarded this franchise and I can go and make money myself and help people make money and really make a change,” said Ciaran when asked about his community perspective, “To be able to have such an impact in my own community now, I don’t take it for granted.” Here in Vancouver, we assume that we will always have or can acquire the material objects that we need. While volunteering in the Philippines, Ciaran encountered situations where people had to make do with a lack of tools or resources. He recounts a time while working in a kitchen in Tacloban City where he needed a knife and was handed a broken one without a handle since “that was just what they [had to] do, because they can’t afford another knife.” He also had to buy all the painting materials for the facility he volunteered in, a place that was under construction but only had one poorly made ladder. However, sometimes even the money he brings over to help might result in a conflict of interest. When in Zambia for the second time, Ciaran had to overcome a conflict when the local board wanted to take all the donation money and spend it the way they wanted. “Sometimes there can be a bit of corruption in certain communities,” said Ciaran regarding the Zambia donation money, “I just sort of had to maneuver my way around that to make sure that the money got spent properly and I could prove it.” For Ciaran, these experiences highlight the importance of honest and meaningful work in the community, imparting in him a deep set of values that he applies to all his initiatives.
During his volunteer work, Ciaran’s main focus has always been to aid the youth. He states that his main goal is “getting them motivated to go empower themselves. To be excited in life and in what they’re doing.” Due to his many experiences, he understands the methods that are most beneficial for helping others in less prosperous communities. “Trying to figure out what they want and what they need, just listening to them, spending actual time with them, like longer periods of time,” said Ciaran, “Just getting into their environment and being vulnerable […] to see what they need.” For him, it is important to be genuine and honest when dealing with the youth that he is helping, two traits that will prove to be equally important in his future business dealings. Although you may be volunteering with friends or acquaintances, it is important to give all your attention to the people you are helping and not to treat the experience as a vacation. As long as you are genuine and make the effort of truly empathizing with the local community, they will be appreciative and receptive of your aid.
Returning to Vancouver, Ciaran has applied his positive attitude towards empowering the youth and engaging with the community to his work at College Pro Painters. “It’s honest, like you either do a good paint job or you don’t. The price is pretty much standard, you just provide a good service,” said Ciaran about his motivations for working at College Pro Painters, “So, it’s something that is a simple concept that could give leadership skills and it was a good opportunity.” Ciaran oversees the hiring of new employees, their training, and the quality of their work; the payment of royalties, the marketing of a strong brand presence in the community, and the assurance of customer satisfaction. He works in the area of Dunbar, Kerrisdale, Shaughnessy, and Kitsilano, employing predominantly college students. “I try to hire youth from Kerrisdale, Dunbar, cause it’s just nicer to have people from the community. Or UBC students that live in the community instead of people bussing in from the suburbs,” responded Ciaran when asked about his employees, “It just makes more sense. It’s not just about money, it’s also about community and working within the community.” By hiring locally and labouring within the community, Ciaran works towards building his vision of a Vancouver community as “a place where you know your neighbours [and] people try to help each other out as much as possible.” He is an advocate for genuine face-to-face connections within the community, especially in a time when technology and the digital age may increase the danger of zoning out and not participating in our communities. “We all live together, we might as well get to know each other and be friendly,” said Ciaran about the importance of engaging with the community, “Through College Pro Painters, we do that because I get to talk to everyone in the community and go knocking on doors. Probably people who are reading this got their door knocked on by College Pro.” Whether it be painting houses in Kerrisdale or Tacloban City, Ciaran’s ambition and passion for community engagement is evident in all of his initiatives.
In the future, Ciaran hopes to combine his experience operating a business with his social work and start a non-profit with a focus on wilderness therapy for the youth. For the present, he is fully committed to College Pro Painters in 2017 and working for the betterment of his community. To learn more about College Pro Painters and the work they do, check out their page at https://www.facebook.com/College-Pro-Painters-Dunbar-Kerrisdale-1651469488486329/ .