Just think about it — where would Whistler be without its merry band of volunteers? They number in the hundreds but can swell to the thousands during epic events like the Olympic Winter Games of 2010. They're the ones behind the books and programs at the local library; they're busy organizing food donations at the food bank; they're sharing a laugh with a down-and-out kid who longs for some mentorship. Volunteers sit on committees and use their creativity to improve our towns and move boldly towards the future, and they often do all this quietly in the background of everyday life.
But their efforts do not go unnoticed, particularly by the organizations that thrive and grow as a result.
Take Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS), for example, which works with community partners to provide services that promote social sustainability in Whistler.
Claire Mozes, outreach program manager for WCSS, is eager to applaud its volunteers.
"WCSS programs and services would not be able to run without volunteer commitment so, to our non-profit, volunteers are invaluable," she writes in an email. As a case in point, she shares that last year approximately 1,200 hours of volunteer time were recorded for the food bank.
Volunteers bring both energy and enthusiasm to the task of helping the community, she adds.
Maureen Douglas agrees.
Working as director of community relations for the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games (VANOC) for eight years, Douglas believes the Olympic volunteer experience changed the town dramatically — for the better.
"I think it created a huge awareness of the value of volunteering for a lot of the people who did volunteer," she points out, "and I think it really instilled in them just what a remarkable experience it can be."
Recruiting Olympic volunteers was one of the most significant harnessing of volunteer efforts that ever transpired on the west coast, where a staggering 10,000 volunteers were required in the Sea to Sky corridor alone.
Yet, says Douglas, there was an astounding turn out, with people going above and beyond and even recruiting from within their own families.
"Families volunteered together and it became a part of the culture and history of their family," she remarks.
That legacy is living on with the Ironman Canada event to be held in Whistler on August 25.
The 3,000 volunteers needed, is the greatest number required since the Games, notes Douglas, and the response has been swift.
It's been remarkable how quickly the 80 volunteer captain positions were scooped up, and the turnout for the initial volunteer meetings was also strong, she says.
"I think people see an event like the Ironman and right away equate the opportunity to volunteer with the Olympic experience of meeting other volunteers from all over and from home, so you're making long-term friends that live right here that are passionate about hosting and seeing events do well here," explains Douglas. "Their excitement and understanding of what might be required of them is one of the great legacies of the Olympics. People have a better understanding of how much fun you can have even if the days are long and the work might be hard."
This volunteer mindset is now ingrained into the community culture, says Douglas, and as an event producer, she cannot say enough about how grateful she feels towards volunteers.
"There's a huge appreciation from the producing side for what these people bring to the equation, it's really impressive," she says.
"I felt that way during the Games. Seeing (a sea) of blue jackets everywhere... watching volunteers put in huge days for the sheer joy. I am always humbled by the commitment and passion."
While event volunteers help make Whistler successful from an event perspective there is another group of volunteers integral to Whistler — search and rescue.
While we sleep restfully at night, there's oftentimes a little pager going off madly on the bedside tables of a dozen local homes. When the Whistler Search and Rescue (WSAR) team is on call, they drop everything in order to help save lives in the mountains.
So what is it exactly that makes these guys tick? What makes them face often-treacherous conditions to save lives?
For Brad Sills, a 38-year veteran of SAR and its current manager, his inspiration from the start was a curiosity and respect for the people that composed the group itself.
"Their selfless dedication in going to help people when they really, really need it — it grabbed my heart strings and has never let go."
Becoming a member of Whistler SAR is an intense commitment. The 25-member team of volunteers is comprised of highly trained personnel who train for 44 weeks out of the year and, considering the enormous diversity of rescue situations they may face, their skills must reflect that demand.
They've run the gamut, Sills explains — from Alzheimer's patients walking out, missing small children, drownings, water rescues, flat ice rescues, swift water rescues, crevasse, avalanche and high-angle rope rescues, long-line rescues, general searches and medivacs.
As for volunteers, SAR is very much a reflection of the people that are participating in outdoor activities, Sill says, "and I can't see there ever being a shortage of volunteers. The training is second to none, you get to hang with people that are in the industry — it's a very gratifying environment to be part of."
And volunteers are there for our furry friends as well.
Whistler Animals Galore (WAG) is an iconic thread in the fabric of the town, a non-profit that cares for and re-homes hundreds of animals each year.
Executive director Shannon Broderick says WAG would simply not exist without the help of its many volunteers.
"WAG volunteers help with all aspects of shelter operations and promotions for the organization. From the dog enrichment volunteers that help to train puppies, to the board members, to the drivers... the list goes on and on," she says by email.
Each time volunteers come into the shelter to help out, they make a difference in the lives of the animals, she explains, with the ultimate goal being to ensure the animals are healthy, trained and well socialized before being adopted out.
And this week is a particularly important week on the calendar — National Volunteer Week (April 21 to 27) is a time to recognize and celebrate the extraordinary efforts of our volunteers across the country.
"Volunteerism is fundamental to the health, safety and overall vitality of Canadian communities from coast to coast," says Ruth MacKenzie, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada. "13.3 million Canadians volunteer over two billion hours of their time each year, and they do so across a broad spectrum of engagement. Volunteers mentor, listen, change laws, nourish, lead, campaign, coach, welcome people to our country and world, and more. National Volunteer Week is all about saying thank-you to all Canadians that give their time and energy to causes or organizations they believe in. And it's a time to reflect on the huge impact these efforts have on our nation and world."
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Volunteering starts with an individual but it can spread like a ripple on a pond — that is one reason why leaders in volunteer organizations love to see young people get involved — chances are it will become a life-long commitment.
So what happens when you set loose seven boisterous, animated and inspired university students into a cramped kitchen, armed with aprons and a few set ingredients and then step back and watch? According to Maureen Mackell, executive director of the Squamish Helping Hands Society, what unfolds is truly remarkable.
"We just gave them the ingredients and said, 'Fly at 'er, make the meal,'" she recalls. "We gave them the room to be creative and make it happen. It was amazing how self-assured they were and how much they just took it in hand — they weren't stopped by their surroundings, they flowed into it."
The Quest students were embarking on a social experiment of sorts — using volunteering at the Squamish Helping Hands Society as a learning tool for their post secondary education. It's an integral part of the students' Question course, explains professor Marjorie Wonham, where they decide on the question that will guide their next two years of study at Quest University.
"It's a course that involves a great deal of soul searching, hand in hand with self-guided academic research. I wanted the students to experience the pleasures of hands-on volunteer work, and to have interpersonal interactions outside the university campus to place their academic inquiry in a broader, real-life context," says Wonham in an email.
She hopes that as a result of volunteering at the shelter, students will gain a connection to the community outside Quest, a perspective on the world that is different from their day-to-day lives on campus, and the feeling of contribution that comes from volunteering time and effort, particularly as a group.
Witness to the gratefulness of the shelter clients when the meal they cooked was served up; the students also gained valuable knowledge on the issue of homelessness and poverty, through a direct connection with the real people behind those abstract concepts.
The Squamish Helping Hands Society has been lending a hand to the community since 2006. With an estimated 200 homeless people in the Squamish area, Helping Hands prepares 65 to 120 hot meals each day, rescues 250 to 350 pounds of food and redistributes five to ten boxes of food to community organizations, seniors and families.
In just one year, Helping Hands serves up an average of 35,000 meals. They also provide 12,660 brown bag school lunches, 3,000 shelter stays and 3,289 volunteer hours.
Yet they are more than just a shelter.
Andrea Purton, volunteer manager and case worker, explains how their clients are encouraged to give back through participation in a community garden project, a process by which they help in the seeding all the way to the sell point of the harvest at the Squamish Farmers Markets.
Community members also contribute enormously to the non-profit through their volunteering efforts, she notes.
"People bring skills and really, every person's story is different," said Purton, adding that the majority of their volunteers lend a hand in the kitchen, the heart of the busy operation, while others head out into the community six days a week to collect food from stores and restaurants, and deliver surplus food to the Whistler and Pemberton food banks.
"A lot of what we do depends on people helping out in our community," notes Purton. "We get a lot of help that way and we're able to accomplish a lot."
And the gift of giving time to your community is being fostered more and more in our younger generations.
Bev Oakley, principal of Whistler Secondary School, points out the remarkable volunteer endeavours of her students.
In addition to the grad transitions program, whereby all Grade 12 students must complete 30 hours of volunteer work, students come up with all sorts of amazing fundraising ideas and initiatives that they run, as well as participating in ongoing volunteer programs.
"We have quite a strong contingent of athletic volunteers," Oakley noted, pointing to the many high school students who coach or referee elementary school basketball and volleyball teams.
A partnership with Big Brothers and Big Sisters allows a number of high school students to head to Spring Creek Elementary School and mentor some of the younger kids once a week, while other students volunteer for the youth arm of the Whistler Community Foundation, making key decisions on the youth programs which will benefit from the monies raised.
Another innovative program at the school is termed an inter-generational mentorship.
"We've got seniors coming into the school to work with some of our students, to give them the benefit of some of the skills they have... but conversely what our students will do is work with seniors to teach them how to use Facebook and email, all those techy things, that our kids are really adept at but that seniors don't really know a lot about."
And the Ministry of Education is taking note, Oakley adds.
"They're realizing how important volunteering is, in terms of rounding out a student's education. We don't want to just be insular here at school, we want students to be part of the community and to give back and to make those connections out in the community through volunteering that you normally wouldn't get to do by just going to classes all day."
The Whistler community is very supportive of our students, she added.
"I think that the Whistler community is quite unique — they've got a real can-do attitude and this volunteering of our students is the beginning of that. If ever there's anything that needs to be done in Whistler, the community pulls together and they find a way to get it done."
Canadians, especially us west coasters, value volunteering as part of being a good citizen — at least according to a survey conducted last year by the Environics Institute. A group consisting of five national organizations — the CBC, the Environics Institute, Maytree, the Institute for Canadian Citizenship and the RBC Foundation — commissioned a public opinion poll, which asked more than 2,000 Canadians what they think are the characteristics of a good citizen.
The survey indicates eleven per cent of Vancouverites ranked volunteer work as something that makes someone a good citizen, compared to six per cent of respondents nationally.
Thirty-four per cent of Canadians surveyed said volunteering is something they do to feel like a good citizen, but that number jumped higher in Vancouver to 40 per cent.
And that trend extends beyond individual citizens' efforts, to businesses that are increasingly valuing social responsibility and the benefits derived from group volunteering.
Corporate volunteers have been rallying to the cause for the past couple of years, a movement spurred on by Purton. Knowing that the local Starbucks stores were donating to the Helping Hands food program and that they were very community-minded, the regional managers and Purton collaborated on the idea of volunteering as part of a team-building exercise.
In the fall of 2011, the group of nine regional managers, hailing from Vancouver to Whistler, arrived on-site on a mission to help with the society's budding community garden project. Waiting for them was a massive pile of sodden soil that needed to be transported to the newly constructed garden boxes.
"It was a totally pouring, soaking wet day," recalls Purton with a chuckle, "and they were great, they were out there with their shovels and getting soaking wet, moving dirt from one place to another."
Their management skills shone through later on when they were all lined up at a table, packing brown bag lunches for school children for the following day.
"They were the self-organizing group — they were throwing the paper bags around and figuring out how to get organized to get their sandwiches done the best way possible, in a factory line."
Anita Kingston, manager of the Squamish Starbucks, who was there on that memorable rainy day, remarks that the act of volunteering is really important to their management group.
"It's about giving back and being part of a community, but it also does help us too, to gel those working relationships. I know, myself, I've grown deeper relationships with those people that are definitely community-minded and that are interested in volunteering."
And the corporate volunteering trend continues — in January this year, a group of employees from the Delta Whistler Village Suites volunteered at Helping Hands.
"They really, really liked it, and it's sparked my interest in developing that program even more," noted Mackell. "It's a really good idea and I think more and more businesses are looking for ways to work together, to do something to give back, and develop social consciousness. I felt that they really got it, there was some real value in it for them, personally and as a team."
Colin Perry, general manager of Delta Whistler Village Suites, agrees unequivocally.
He finds it striking how the word spread like wildfire on the volunteering initiative. Starting out as the brainchild of an employee in the hotel, in the span of mere minutes after management shared the idea, the spaces available were filled, with a mixed bag of people stepping up from different departments.
"This shows it's very much part of our culture and of the individuals that are working with us," he noted.
The group of employees rolled up their sleeves and got right to work — they chopped and prepped vegetables for soups for the next day and for that evening's meal and then served it up to the clients.
"Across the board we all thought it was something we'd like to do in the future," remarked Perry. "As individuals we were able to contribute positively to the community, but there was also the team building aspect. We can't think of a more productive team building event, to be able to give back as well."
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There can be little doubt that volunteers keep the vital signs of sea to sky communities strong — in fact there are so many volunteers and organizations they help it is impossible to mention all of them in one article. But every one of them plays a pivotal role in achieving a better community for all of us to live in.
Douglas sums it up perfectly:
"We're really lucky to have the kind of spirit and enthusiasm we have in these communities here — they make remarkable things happen, given the size of our towns," she says.
It's an undeniable fact — every minute of every day across the vast reaches of the Sea to Sky corridor, hundreds of community organizations hum to life to the beat of the tireless work our volunteers freely give. They truly are the life-blood of our dynamic towns, helping to change lives for the better and shape our collective future.
Laying down the welcome Mat
In a mass migration on a scale which rivals the annual march of the woodland caribou across thousands of kilometres to winter feeding grounds, each November hordes of young globetrotters end up in Whistler, in search of hard cash and powder snow. Yet despite the common stereotype portraying them as party animals, many of these newcomers yearn to contribute to the vibrant community that is Whistler.
And that's where the annual volunteer fair, an essential part of the Whistler Welcome Week, comes in. A dozen or more local non-profit organizations gather at a specified location each November to deliver information on volunteering opportunities in town. These opportunities can range from being a role model through Big Brothers and Big Sisters through handing out food for needy residents, or working in the film industry with the Whistler Film Festival.
The act of volunteering is an effective way for newcomers to integrate with the community, explains Jeff Slack, programs and marketing manager for the Whistler Museum, and volunteer work really makes a difference.
"It really has a tangible impact on our operations and on the operations of all the non-profits in our community. A lot of them wouldn't exist if it wasn't for volunteer efforts."
Volunteering to teach snowboarding helps at-risk youth
Bucking the trends and gainfully heading in his own direction is certainly the norm with Squamish resident Chris Pettingill. Passionate about the community of Squamish, he is a regular commentator on the popular Facebook group, Squamish Speaks, and currently sits as president of the Squamish Chamber of Commerce. He speaks to me by phone on the virtues of volunteering with youth.
The North American-based program he is alluding to is called Chill, and its mission is to give at-risk and underserved youth the opportunity to learn essential life skills and increase self-esteem while experiencing the innate joys of snowboarding.
Back in 2005 Pettingill embraced the sport of snowboarding himself and completed his Level I certification, but he soon found himself questioning what he was going to do with this extra qualification.
The answer was revealed in amongst the pages of a snowboard magazine he was leafing through one day — once he saw the ad for Chill, he decided to give it a go and signed up to volunteer.
That was five seasons ago and he's only missed one season due to a broken leg. He volunteered at a ski hill near Toronto for two years and for the past three seasons has been volunteering at Mount Seymour in Vancouver.
"It was a really long drive and it probably didn't make sense for me to do it, but for me I had never really volunteered much," says Pettingill. "It was a way to combine it with something I like doing, snowboarding."
So what exactly is a typical volunteer shift at Chill?
Pettingill drives to the mountain from Squamish in the early evening hours on a Wednesday and waits for the group of approximately 50 youth to arrive via bus, whereupon he is there with the other Chill volunteers to greet them.
"Some are unsure of themselves," he says. "A lot of them have never been up to a mountain before or ever put on snowboard equipment or skied, so this is really a brand new experience."
Ski instructors from the resort teach the youth the nuances of snowboarding for the first hour and then they have an hour of free time. This is where Pettingill steps back in.
"At that point you're trying to help them, give them encouragement, especially in the first week – it's a brand new situation, it's tough, so you're there to give them some reinforcement and try to get them to want to come back because it's usually the second or third week when they are like, 'Oh, this is awesome.' The first week they are not necessarily loving it... so you try to give them that encouragement to come back and stick with it."
During the course of the six-week program Pettingill says he is witness to a remarkable transformation in the youth. By the end they are confident snowboarders and are riding on the big hill, "so you stand back a bit and let them enjoy it."
One of his fondest memories from volunteering with Chill relates to a 10-year-old girl, who was very reserved at the start. She had an autistic younger sister for whom she was a guardian.
"She's only 10 years old and she's never allowed to do anything after school, she had to always be there at her younger sibling's side, always watching out for her," says Pettingill. "Her school recognized that this wasn't good, so they got her into the program. It was her first time to get away from her parents and the responsibility of her little sister and have fun. And just to see her come out of her shell and actually be a kid was pretty cool."
As for the benefits reaped from volunteering, he admits it's a long drive and a big chunk of time to commit to, but says it's worth it.
"I feel that in a way with this, I get to live vicariously through the kids and when they get it for the first time... seeing that spark, that's cool."
His day job sees him strapped to a desk, working in software development on a screening tool for children's mental health.
"Normally I am behind the computer, programming backend database stuff, completely removed from the people. In theory, this tool is helping and with this, I am at the total other end of it. You give some money and forget about it but when you actually put time into something to help someone, it makes it feel more real."