How volunteering helps an Abbotsford nurse avoid burnout

How nursing helped Gagan Phulka find her voice as a volunteer and a leader: “A lot of it is connected: you feel as though you find your voice, even though it’s always been there, and you look at the care that you provide a little differently.”

By Tyler Olsen | January 24, 2022 |5:00 am

There’s a reason Gagan Phulka’s voice carries weight when she speaks up.

Phulka is a registered nurse who has worked in long-term care, on First Nations reserves, and in vaccination clinics. She’s also one of the valley’s most active volunteers. After starting with Big Brothers Big Sisters since her teens, she has since started a non-profit with a friend to provide health education to the Punjabi-speaking community, worked with Archway Community Services to help newcomers to Canada, and now serves on the boards guiding two prominent non-profit organizations. Last November, she was honoured as Abbotsford’s volunteer of the year.

So you can say she has been quite busy in her 26 years.

Don’t worry about all those activities causing her to burn out. For Phulka, volunteering is a solution to the stress her day job can bring.

“There’s a lot that goes into nursing, we’re so multifaceted in the care that we provide,” she told The Current. “For myself, a way to prevent [burnout] was to have myself serve different areas. It provides a purpose to my work, to be able to use the skills that I’ve learned through nursing and apply them in different areas. And it keeps me working, it keeps everything interesting, and you learn so much about the communities you serve.”

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Phulka started volunteering in high school after watching her siblings volunteer. She loved being around kids and once thought she would become a pediatric nurse, so becoming a Big Brothers Big Sisters mentor was a natural and fun way to volunteer.

“Reflecting back on having older siblings and having role models, I knew what an impact it had on my life and once I started in high school, I felt I was able to give that to another child who may not have that in their home,“ she said. “It’s through those fun activities, such as soccer or painting or baking, that you get the chance to build that rapport with a child and be that person by the end of it who they can turn to if they ever have any issues, or they just need someone to lean on.”

Gagan Phulka was named Volunteer of the Year last fall. 📷 Submitted
Gagan Phulka was named Volunteer of the Year last fall. 📷 Submitted

At the core of much of Phulka’s volunteering—and work—is the idea that education and information is vital for people to live healthy lives, and also for organizations to grow and improve.

Her nursing work demands the delivery of potentially life-saving information to patients in forms they can understand and use. After she and her friend, Gurleen Dhaliwal, became nurses and created a charity called Vitality for the Vulnerable, they focused on connecting Punjabi-speaking people to health care information on issues like breast health and diabetes they may otherwise miss.

“So much of our healthcare is shifting towards prevention, and primary care, and how can we fill those gaps,” she said. “A lot of that is just simply through education.”

When Phulkan started as a bedside nurse, she noticed that some patients who didn’t speak English were also missing important information about their diabetes management. “If we’re missing basic information, how can we get it up to the community members so we’re not just giving it when they’re accessing care?” she asked herself.

Over the last couple years, Phulka has moved into leadership roles in several organizations—she now serves on the board of directors of the Langley Care Society, which oversees Langley Lodge, is vice-chair of Big Brother Big Sisters of Canada Fraser Valley, and sits on Archway Community Services’ Immigrant Advisory Table.

“We can make a change on so many levels, whether it’s at a grassroots level or in-school mentor level,” she says. But when you’re on the ground, you can also spot the key roles played by entire systems and policies.And her nursing experience gave her confidence to raise her voice in a leadership capacity. “I felt as though I had a voice, that I could now go sit on a board and share where I felt there was a need for improvement or where I was recognizing disparities,” she said, adding that volunteering has also influenced her nursing the same way.

“A lot of it is connected: you feel as though you find your voice, even though it’s always been there, and you look at the care that you provide a little differently.”

Phulka’s has taken a route travelled by many who end up in leadership positions. But she has stepped on the gas, arriving at a destination that takes some decades to reach.

And Phulka also sees opportunities and advantages by those at the opposite end of the age spectrum. The benefits she says she has found from volunteering aren’t age-limited, but something that can be accessed whether one is 26 or 86.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that as we get older, we have this belief that there are certain roles that we outgrow. And that is the case sometimes. But I think that also as we get older, we gain a certain experience that we can apply in other areas.”

That goes across the age spectrum.

“There are so many skills, regardless if you’re 18, 25, or 70 years old, that we can give to our community. And it prevents that isolation and allows for that fulfillment for everyone at any age.”

Do you know someone doing something incredible in the Fraser Valley? Email us.

We’re bringing independent, local-first, in-depth reporting to serve you and our community.

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Having trouble with the form? Contact us at contact@fvcurrent.com.

Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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