Giving back

Volunteers are the heart of our town. Just think of everything you look forward to throughout the year – Santa Claus parades, fishing tournaments, theatre shows, craft sales, strawberry socials – volunteers are behind it all. Most of our parks, playgrounds and garden spaces were made possible through volunteer clubs and organizations. Not to mention the countless hours of charitable work devoted to helping those in need.

Volunteer groups play a central role in our quality of life, but many are currently at a serious risk of being lost. Kids and Co, the popular kids’ theatre series, may be forced to fold without help. Best for Kitty pet rescue, which has re-homed more than 70 cats and kittens in our District, is at a crossroads. This week, we learned that even the Legion Ladies Auxiliary to Branch 29 – one of our town’s most energetic volunteer groups – is struggling to fill its executive.

The struggle to find volunteers isn’t unique to us. Volunteerism in its traditional form, has been on the decline for decades, across North America. Volunteering may be most commonly associated with retirement, but according to Volunteer Canada, the volunteer spirit is alive and well in younger generations. “Micro-volunteering”, which creates bite-sized projects and flexible schedules are more popular for younger generations. They’re more likely to mow a neighbour’s lawn or take part in a community clean-up, than commit to monthly boardroom committee meetings. But the drive to create a better community is there.

Perhaps volunteerism is undergoing an evolution. It wouldn’t be the first time. In the early 2000’s, I covered a symposium aimed at attracting more women into leadership roles. One of the presenters – an elderly veteran of municipal politics – spoke about the changing shape of volunteering over her life. In the 50s, housewives did the bulk of volunteer service; after seeing kids off to school, they would gather up their preschoolers and a plate of goodies, and meet in church basements and living rooms to plan community events. By the 70s, many men had joined in, but family life and volunteering were still entwined; kids played together while the adults planned. She linked the decline of volunteerism to 80s corporate culture. Joining boards and committees became seen as a resume booster and bouncing a baby on your knee at a meeting table was suddenly unprofessional. It forced parents to choose between paying for a sitter, or splitting up, so one could mind the kids at home. Or, as many chose, abandoning volunteer work altogether until their kids were older.

Obviously, that was just one woman’s perspective, and took place in southern Ontario, where attitudes are different from ours. But the struggle to attract a base of volunteers is a reality here, too. It’s a debate our own council has had for years – to stay with daytime committee meetings to accommodate staff, or move to evenings, to allow more working people to join. Evening meetings may not conflict with work, but parents know how hectic evenings are with school-age kids. Just the basics of dinner, bath, book and bed can be harried. Add in extracurriculars, and there’s very little time left. There’s no easy solution, and each organization will need to find its own way to engage new people. But organizations shouldn’t have their last gasp for help go ignored – if you love your town, join in. Our District has a base of 20,000 potential volunteers. Imagine the mountains we could move if everyone pushed.

Megan Walchuk

The Times has a free listing, Giving Back, which is open to all organizations seeking volunteers. E-mail the details of your position to to be included.