Carol Hughes’ Column: Three cheers for volunteers

If you scratch the surface of any community across Canada you are sure to expose the work of volunteers in the process.  From the toughest downtown neighbourhoods to the most pastoral small towns, volunteers are a constant presence and their work usually makes a big difference. That’s one of the reasons we take a week at the end of April to recognize their efforts, and hopefully do a good job of expressing our gratitude in the process.

This year’s National Volunteer week runs from April 23rd – 29th and the theme is the very Canadian sounding, “volunteering eh?” It honours the indomitable spirit of volunteering that is such a big part of our national character – so much so that we choose to celebrate it ahead of many other national traits.  I see proof of this when I walk down Wellington Street in Ottawa near the House of Commons where there is a prominent statue of Terry Fox. 

Terry Fox might be the ultimate example of the positive effect that volunteering can have. His run was a fundraiser for cancer research that captured the imagination of the country.  Although he wasn’t able to complete his journey from the east coast to the west, tens of thousands of Canadians carry on in his name to this day.  A full 37 years later, his act of volunteering probably has the greatest multiplier attached to it than that of any other individual in Canadian history.  The foundation that bears his name has raised $715 million to date, well beyond Terry’s dream of getting every Canadian to donate a dollar.

Perhaps volunteering makes so much sense in Canada because, apart from a few big cities, we are a collection of smaller communities.  Those are the kind of places where effort can make up for fewer resources and it is easier to see how the work of volunteers makes a difference in people’s lives every day. In that sense volunteers are a non-monetary cornerstone that keeps our communities strong.

There is no end of ways to volunteer, some are obvious and some are subtle such as the neighbour who helps out when someone is sick or unable to help themselves.  It doesn’t require the same degree of commitment that is needed for volunteers who work with children and undergo a background check.  Still, these informal acts are like glue that binds neighbourhoods together and help maintain civility.

There is no doubt that the benefits of volunteering are a boon to society, but we should remember it is not a one way street.  In fact, the act of volunteering can contribute to an individual’s sense of purpose and that might explain why so many people choose to make the commitment.  Recent data suggests that almost half of us volunteer in some way.  The biggest rate of participation is from adults aged 55 and up which may be the result of that group having the most time available to be involved.

Volunteer Canada tells us that volunteering helps people stay active and connected to their communities and can play a big role in healthy aging both physically and socially. They point to studies that show reduced stress-related illnesses, higher self-esteem, and less feelings of isolation as some of the benefits available to older Canadians who volunteer. 

Whatever the reason that people are moved to volunteer, it is clear that they make our communities and our country better.  We are richer for the chance to interact and more compassionate because of it.  That’s why it’s great that we take a week to focus on all the good that comes from volunteering.  It gives us a chance to say thank you to all the volunteers who give of themselves and make a difference in the process.