Celebrating our volunteers: Ken connects with youth over a game of chess

Celebrating our volunteers: Ken connects with youth over a game of chess 

Ken Stripelis has been showing up to volunteer at Covenant House for over thirty years, making him one of our longest serving supporters.  

He spoke to us about how a game ofa chess builds connections and community for some of the young people at Covenant House Toronto. 

Q: How did you get started volunteering at Covenant House?   

A: In the beginning, I helped the staff with a variety of tasks including greeting youth at the front desk and helping them find a place to live in the city. During that time, I started to play board games with some of the youth and eventually it developed into a formal program. Now I play chess every Thursday evening, and I’ve spent every one of my Thursdays at CHT since 2012. 

Q: Why chess? 

A: I learned how to play chess at a very young age. However, my interest peaked when I started playing with the youth at Covenant House Toronto. I really enjoy playing this challenging game with them because I feel that it teaches them that there are an infinite number of strategies a player can use to win and have hope. I also enjoy teaching the youth how to play and seeing how much they enjoy the game. 

Q: What effect do you think a game of chess has on them? 

A: I see the youth get inspired by the intellectual challenges of playing the game. I believe that playing chess makes them realize that they possess the intellectual skills and talent to compete against and defeat any opponent. The game shows them how they can apply those skills and talents to real life situations such as overcoming any challenges that life may throw their way.  

Q: Tell me about a memorable moment you had as a volunteer. 

A: Ten years ago, a young man staying in the shelter would quietly watch me play chess with the other youth, listen carefully to my lessons and enjoy the conversations around the chess board. He never actually played with me or even spoke with me, he just watched and listened. Since then, he was able to move out of shelter, complete his education, develop a successful career and purchase a home. He used his observations of my lessons to learn how to play after leaving Covenant House and is now one of the top chess players in Canada. In appreciation for all that Covenant House has done for him, he now gives back by playing chess with the youth as a volunteer.  

Q: What type of conversations do you have while playing? 

A: There is usually a group of youth who like to watch the match and some interesting conversations develop. I leave it up to them to decide what they would like to share. Most of the time we talk about world history, science and life skills like writing or how to stay healthy and keep fit.  

Q: How do you think those conversations help them?  

 A: I feel that the conversations we have are important because they help build trust. Spending time talking while playing chess shows them that there are people out there who have good intentions and genuinely care about them. Although I don’t discuss anything personal, I let them know that they should not hesitate to approach any of the staff if they have a problem or need guidance.    

Q: What has made you continue showing up for youth week after week for all these years? 

A: I continued volunteering at Covenant House Toronto for the past 30 years because I am truly amazed at the youths’ strong desire to learn new things and improve their personal lives. Volunteering allows me the opportunity to be a positive influence on them by letting them know that, although I am older than them, I am still learning things about life too.