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Rebooting the volunteer spirit

Giving by giving back

A world without volunteerism: a dark and unfriendly place

There would be no CT scanner at the Whistler Health Clinic. No advanced heart rate monitor. No warming blankets to comfort broken bones coming out of the cold. 120 people, individuals and families, would go hungry. More than 150 would go without Christmas dinner on the table and presents under the tree. Wounded soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan might never discover their first pain-free day when introduced to the joy and freedom of adaptive skiing or kayaking. Suicides would take the lives of more youth and waterways would be trampled on by development.

The Olympics and Paralympics, guided by thousands of smiling volunteers in blue jackets, would have been a disaster.

Thankfully Whistler is far from this nightmare, and generally speaking volunteerism is always stronger in smaller towns than big cities where people don't know their neighbours' names. However, the landscape of Canada's volunteer sector is changing, declining at a rate of 2.5 per cent a year, according to the studies of Carleton University professor Dr. Paul Reed. In 10 years, he says the country will lose one quarter of its volunteer population.

So what will our world look like? How can we better understand why this is happening? And most importantly, exactly how do you create a volunteer?


The State of Volunteerism in Canada

Reed has devoted 30 years of his life to understanding the makeup of Canada's volunteer sector. The social scientist is the director of the Nonprofit Sector Knowledge Base Project, which has produced more than 50 studies. His findings come to light in the Graff-Reed Conversations found on

According to these studies, Canada's once consistent volunteer rate over the past 20 years has begun to slide. No longer mentioned in throne speeches with the government looking at the volunteer sector as a reserve of "free labour" to supplement program cutbacks, the future of volunteerism is declining - or what Reed calls "softening."

The senior social scientist at Statistics Canada attributes this failing to a number of factors, including the softening of the family unit due to the rise of divorce; increased time demands such as commuting; a decline in religion (always a strong volunteer driver); and the movement of Canada's population into bigger cities (where volunteering is less prevalent), among others.

"Volunteering has gone through a golden age of 10 to 12 years and it's very definitely weakening, softening and declining," Reed says, noting the focus and funding for volunteer studies is no longer a government priority.

67 per cent of all volunteering is conducted by only five per cent of Canada's population, and the character profile of this shrinking group is deteriorating. According to Reed's studies, there are fewer people volunteering and those who do are committing themselves to a fewer number of organizations. Volunteers are also shying away from long-term commitments, moving towards more episodic and quid-pro-quo opportunities.

"Volunteering is changing and for the worse. Volunteerism, once upon a time, was participated in by people who were fairly committed," says Reed, who is also Carleton University's director of the Centre for Applied Social Research. "We are also seeing more on a mutual payback basis where they get something directly in return."


The Making of a Volunteer

Not everyone has the volunteer spirit, but those that do have it in spades. This glow has been brewing since childhood, blossoming hopefully under mentors, family and friends, just waiting to be realized.

This spirit is the source of what makes a volunteer. Reed calls this depleting resource, "the ethos of caring for the greater good."

"Volunteering is fundamentally learned from early life experiences," Reed says. "Without knowing it, you are walking around with a certain set of values in your head. They get activated or energized by our exposure to a circumstance and by seeing the pleasure (volunteering) gives people, we get involved."

It takes a generation to build a volunteer. Reed explains that a volunteer is raised in an environment that instills strong ideals and values. Those values are then triggered during the teen years when youth participate in school government, join a faith youth group or are exposed to volunteer role models, such as coaches and athletes who donate their time to various causes, teachers that donate their time to direct school plays and tutor students, fundraisers that use schools to raise awareness and donations.

The volunteer spirit needs a spark. For newly-inducted Whistler resident Michael Taylor, who was raised in a family whose mantra was "treat others the way you yourself would like to be treated," his spark was ignited at high school where he was introduced to volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit organization which builds housing for low-income families.

"It was a program our guidance councillor set up, and it seemed cool to give it a go," the now 23-year-old remembers.

More volunteer time followed when Taylor moved onto university. The University of Alberta graphic design student spent three years volunteering as a first contact for those in need.

According to Reed, universities are a great resource for cultivating volunteers.

"It's not the amount of education you got; university seems in a subtle and powerful way to make people aware of the greater good, making them aware of the world outside of their lives," Reed says.

Taylor enjoyed his volunteer work so much that when he moved to Whistler this September to work for Origin Designs, he immediately connected with the Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS) to join the Volunteer Peer Educator Experience - a program that trains young adults about outreach services, so they in turn can educate the public. Most recently Taylor directed a business acquaintance to the Whistler Food Bank.

"I've been able to refer people to resources they didn't know existed," Taylor said. "The beauty of the program is that it's on your own time. It's not like you have office hours per se ."

The life cycle of a volunteer stereotypically dips when people form couples and become preoccupied with that three-letter word.

"Yes, sex slows things down," Reed laughs. "[Volunteering] drops during the 28 to 34 age period while they are forming couples and creating kids."

Once parents begin enrolling their children in activities that require volunteer support, parents typically become involved again. The volunteer lifecycle is at its strongest when people reach their late 50s, after children have left the nest. Something Whistler mom Sue Jensen understands all too well.

Last month, she found a new home for her family's gingerbread house tradition, baking 2,100 pieces of gingerbread from scratch for more than 400 children to assemble with icing and candies at the inaugural Gingerbread House Party fundraiser at Nita Lake Lodge. For only $10, families had a taste of the Christmas spirit while at the same time raising more than $4,000 for WCSS - which oversees programs such as the Whistler Food Bank.

"The feeling of being together with people, doing things happily: what that lady generated all added up to a lot of good, but the greatest good was the experience of doing things together," Reed says. "Volunteering is not being an unpaid worker for an organization. Volunteering is people coming together, seeing a need or opportunity and then acting together in concert."

This is volunteerism at its finest: organic and collective, moving away from the unattractive corporate-style structure many non-profits are adopting.

"There is a very slow and long term shift to both volunteering and charitable giving, to doing it directly to people rather than through organizations. Many organizations are becoming too stiff, too constrained by regulations and policies," Reed says. "That's not what people want. They want to meet other people and learn new skills. There is an old three letter word that comes with this - J-O-Y."


The State of Volunteering, The State of Our World

The waning of those interested in volunteering should be mankind's alarm bell. A world without volunteers means more than just families going hungry because there is no Food Bank.

"[Our society] is being looked at through the lens of contributing. We are becoming a less coupled society, a less caring society, a less contributing society," Reed explains.

Volunteerism acts like the country's thermometer, providing a reading on the health and welfare of its people.

"What would the world look like without volunteers?" he asks. "It's going to be impersonal, sterile, and possibly unfriendly. We will live in cocoons and interact with people simply for market transactions, to buy and sell. There will be far less nourishing of spirit."

Reed offered two solutions to preventing the further decline of the volunteer sector: funding a billion-dollar youth volunteer experience program where youths' living expenses are covered, allowing them to work in four different volunteer positions over a year. This program would not only create rich life experiences, but also provide a firm foundation for the building of a lifetime volunteer.

The second option requires no funding at all and instead asks people to do the most natural thing in the world: share stories and basically provide the spark to ignite that volunteer flame just waiting to be realized.

"There are so many stories to be told that will hook people's idealism," Reed says. "I think storytelling is one of the most extraordinary things that people can do."


A Story on Volunteerism

Devon Greening looks like any other newcomer to town: young, positive, good natured and comfortable with himself. A day off from working as a rental technician with Whistler Blackcomb, he's on time for our meeting, well groomed in a clean pair of jeans and shirt. This articulate 20-year-old could easily be passed off as a typical son of a middle class family who is putting off college to chase his powder dreams in Whistler.

"I look like an average person on the outside," Devon says. "No would know to see me."

It isn't until he complains of his tendonitis that a road less travelled becomes evident.

"I don't have a wrist guard for it," he explains as he rubs his wrist. "I'm saving up for one."

His injury doesn't come from a snowboard crash; this East Vancouver native injured his wrist while hauling around his belongings in a bag as he was living on the street this summer.

"I was kicked out of my home at 17," he says, explaining his mother suffers from mental illness. "I had no family. No support."

He initially found refuge in a safe house then lived on his own through government support. A series of what he now calls "bad choices" led to him curling up in a children's sleeping bag trying to shake off the cold on Salt Spring Island.

"I never begged, by choice," he says, explaining a pop can could be returned for 10 cents and a wine bottle for 45 cents. "I did odd jobs."

Now calling an elementary school fire escape staircase home, the youth who doesn't use drugs returned to Vancouver, whereon visiting the Directions Youth Services Centre for a free meal he learned about a Whistler-based program called Zero Ceiling.

The charitable society offers innovative sports and work programs to at-risk youth in the Lower Mainland and Sea to Sky Corridor. Through personal development, Zero Ceiling has changed the lives of 4,000 youth since its inception in 1997. Devon along with four others is set up for the 2010/11 winter season here in Whistler with housing, work and moral support.

No longer looking for free meals, Devon now cooks for himself. Raised on Kraft Dinner and Lipton Sidekick instant mashed potatoes, he prefers making homemade cheese and vegetable soup at Whistler Blackcomb Staff Housing. He's learning how to make ice cream off the internet, but cooking is just a hobby. Devon is ambitious to experience all walks of life such as working in a bakery, wearing a suit in an office, living on a farm, becoming a youth councillor and ultimately authoring a book.

A huge fan of fantasy novels such as Ian Irvine's The Well of Echoes series, Devon joined Whistler's The Vicious Circle writing group where he is connecting with other writers in the community.

"I'm getting back on my feet for sure," he says. "I want to save up money and go back to Vancouver and get a place and go back to school."

Only one month into the program, as an outsider, the effects of Devon's Zero Ceiling experience are hard to see. There is no fanfare of "my life has been changed forever" epiphanies. Applying was practical: he didn't want to face the winter on the street.

But he speaks highly of the program director, how much she cares, how much she gives without barging into his life. There is gratefulness. A sure sign of the makings of another volunteer.

"I've been asking to help volunteer with some of the fundraising for Zero Ceiling," he says before getting up to leave. "I want to get more people involved and get more people in it."




Why Volunteer?

  • Work experience
  • Meeting people
  • Learning new things
  • Helping someone else, your community


"Some people go through life trying to find out what the world holds for them only to find out too late that it's what they bring to the world that really counts."

-       From Anne of Green Gables written by Lucy Maud Montgomery


"Things won are done; Joy's soul lies in the doing."

-       William Shakespeare


"The greatest good is what we do for others."

-       Mother Teresa




Get Involved


  • Share a specific skill or interest with young girls as part of Girl Guides Canada in Whistler and Pemberton. Also looking for guides, book keepers and advisors. Contact Shelagh at 604.932.9675 or .
  • Pancake flippers always needed at Rotary Clubs in Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish. The nation-wide club of 1.2 million members aims to combat polio.  Contact Mary Ann at 604.906.0640 or visit .
  • Volunteering can be as simple as driving someone to a doctor's appointment in Squamish or grocery shopping for a newcomer laid up with a broken leg in Whistler. Learn more about the Whistler Community Services Society's Helping Hand program by calling Melissa Deller at 604.902.0865 or .
  • Ever wanted to understand the challenges of organic farming? Become a volunteer for the Jim Cook Community Green House Project in Whistler. Visit .
  • Puppy feeding, playtime in the cattery, opening or closing the shelter and evening dog walking - these are al ways to get involved at the WAG animal shelter in Whistler. Youth program available. Contact Paula Del Bosco at .
  • Computer geeks share your expertise as a computer lab volunteer at the Whistler Public Library. Book shelvers and home delivery volunteers also needed. Contact 604.935.8433.
  • Get free tickets to events by volunteering for the Whistler Arts Council, including ticket taking for the Performance Series, registration for the Whistler Children's Art Festival, coat check at ARTrageous, hosting opening receptions for ArtWalk and event load out for Bizarre Bazaar. Visit or call 604.935.8410.
  • Adult and teen mentors in Squamish and Whistler needed. More at or call 604.928.9299.
  • Passionate about the environment? Help host ongoing programs such as the AWARE Kids Nature Club. Visit .
  • Do you know how to convert the content of VHS tapes into a new media format? Help unearth never-before-seen historic footage of Whistler. Gift shop sales, admissions and marketing volunteers also needed. Visit .
  • Other non-profit groups looking for volunteers: The Whistler Adaptive Sports Program, the Whistler Health Care Foundation, MY Millennium Place, the Youth Centre, SAFE Clinic, School Literacy Days, Parent Advisory Committees, Whistler Minor Hockey, Whistler Off Road Cycling Association, Whistler Fishery Stewardship Group, Whistler Village Host Program, Whistler Weasel Workers, WinterPride, the Whistler Mountain Ski Club and the Whistler Naturalists. More at .