Monday, April 16, 2007

In Praise of Volunteers

My husband Brian and I recently were given a very positive answer to the age old question, "Does what I do really matter?" Twenty years ago, when we were still not much more than kids ourselves, we took on the job of being the youth group leaders at our church. We kept the job for a few years until the demands of our own growing family became our priority.

Last weekend we ran into a member of our youth group, his wife and two of their three children. Richard introduced us to his family and commented, "These are the Elstons, the people that led our youth group all those years ago, remember?"

"Remember!" was his wife's reply. "You two had such a positive impact on Richard that we led our own church's youth group for five years."

It was a magical moment and one that reminded me of the immense contribution that volunteers make to the world. Volunteers are often quick to recognize a need or a problem long before any other sector of our society. Concern about the state of our environment is a particularly good example of this. For decades, community activists have worked on such issues as pesticide control, identifying the connection between public health and environmental contamination, and waste reduction. Ontario’s highly successful blue box program evolved from the efforts of community volunteers who set up local recycling programs.

According to Volunteer Canada,"The Canadian voluntary and nonprofit sector is made up of more than 161,000 organizations and almost 12 million volunteers." In short, society simply wouldn't function without the selfless energy of volunteers.

Consider this: all Guide and Scout leaders are volunteers, so are the hockey, soccer and baseball coaches who dedicate their free time to helping our kids. School councils are made up of volunteers and it's volunteers who fuel many community seniors' support programs. Big Brothers and Big Sisters ((you guessed it) are all volunteers. Volunteer boards run our hospitals, community associations, churches, social welfare agencies and not-for-profit agencies. In many smaller communities, volunteers provide such essential services as firefighting and policing. In honor of National Volunteer Week, April 15 to 21, maybe it's time we showed our appreciation. Here are some suggestions:

Be punctual. Volunteers willingly give of their time. Show your respect by not wasting it or taking advantage of it. If soccer practice starts at 6:30, dropping your son off at 6:45 because you were running late delays practice for everyone. Conversely, don't use volunteers as babysitters. Leaving your daughter at camp an hour before it starts, or picking her up an hour after it finishes (because you've made plans for the weekend) is both inconvenient and inconsiderate.

Say thank you. I am frequently amazed at how invisible volunteers are. I chaired a committee of volunteers a few years ago and asked if I could purchase small thank you gifts for retiring board members. I was told there was no money. It's not that they couldn't afford to pay for the gifts; it's simply that nobody thought to include acknowledging the work of volunteers in the budgeting process.

Treat volunteers with the respect that they deserve. Hockey and soccer coaches are frequently screamed at (or worse) by parents who feel that their little superstar isn't getting the special coaching, ice or field time they feel that their child is entitled to.

A friend of mine provides another example of how poorly treated volunteers can be. For years she served on the local school council, putting in long hours, coordinating hot lunch programs, chairing meetings and organizing special events. Despite this, she would often get an earful from disgruntled parents ("My kid's hot lunch was cold!"), who were quick to criticize but slow to volunteer themselves. To her credit, my friend has continued to volunteer because she knows that what she does makes a difference, and therein lies the heart of matter.

One final suggestion: pitch in. If you think you're too busy to volunteer, consider the adage, "If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it." Most volunteers are extremely busy people, and yet somehow they find the time to give back to society. Maybe it's time we all followed their example.


National Volunteer Week, April 15 to April 21, pays special tribute to Canadian volunteers across the country who give of themselves to better their communities and the lives of others. For more information, visit


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