Volunteers don’t get paid, not because they’re worthless, but because they’re priceless.”
When I retired in 2014, the prospect of limitless leisure did not appeal to me. I knew I would need to add something new to my life to gain pleasure, purpose and pride. Volunteering came to mind. While browsing a website for volunteers, I happened upon a museum in our Vancouver neighbourhood advertising for docents. This position would be as close as I would come to fulfilling a distant dream to teach. I applied, went for an interview, attended a few training sessions, and then began offering tours of a Queen Anne Revival style house that a German immigrant family inhabited from 1893-1925. This small opportunity led to a big life for me in the West End. But I’ll tell my story in a later post.
IN THEIR WORDS
From Ian: “Recently retired and new to Vancouver, I had lots of spare time and wanted to get involved in the community, make a small contribution to the quality of life in Vancouver, meet some new people, and acquire new knowledge and experience. I started off with the Alzheimer Society as I knew from experience this disease usually has devastating consequences on families. Later on, my chief at the Alzheimer Society suggested I volunteer at the Crane Library at UBC. I applied and have ended up narrating/recording academic texts for faculty and students suffering from impaired vision.
Meanwhile, our building’s management (“strata”) council recruited me to serve, which I did for five years. I have also volunteered with the local cycling advocacy group and am participating in an extended UBC research project on a new walking/cycling promenade and its impact on senior citizens living in its vicinity.
As a result of volunteering, I feel part of my local community and that I am doing useful things for my fellow citizens. In addition, I have found that volunteering, if taken seriously, adds structure to one’s daily schedule. I have met many people, few of whom I would have encountered otherwise, and have found this aspect particularly enriching, especially the opportunity to get to know younger people. Finally, I should mention that without volunteering I would know much less about such matters as the impact of dementia on society, the daily struggles faced by blind students, and how a few ill-mannered people can disrupt the quality of life in an apartment block.
Perhaps most important, I have learnt that many organizations would be unable to function, even on a limited basis, without volunteers. The Crane Library, for example, employs three staff members who interact with about 80 volunteers. Other organizations operate with similar ratios, something I was unaware of prior to becoming a volunteer.”
From Pat: “Suddenly, or so it seemed, I left my position at McGill and was living in the Philippines with no job and with house help five days a week. For someone wanting to help people in need, however, there is ample opportunity in a country like the Philippines. Among other things I led an English conversation group for spouses of scientists. Most had a little knowledge of the language but could not converse in it. It was hard work but a wonderful opportunity to get to know women (they were all women) from many different cultural backgrounds.
I also served on two local committees that provided scholarships to worthy high school students in need and gave funds to families facing extraordinary medical expenses. As local women headed these committees, working with them gave me insight into the lives and attitudes of what might be called “middle class” Filipinos. The work itself increased my awareness of the challenges facing the majority of Filipinos at the bottom of the social scale.
Since moving back to Canada I joined the Great Books Discussion Group at the local community centre. This group consisted of extremely bright and articulate seniors, making our weekly readings, discussions and presentations on some of the truly great works of literature not a little challenging. Eventually, as the youngest member, I volunteered to co-ordinate the group. The role involved considerably more time than expected. Finally, I came to the realization this weekly commitment interfered with our desire to travel more often and for longer periods of time — while we are still physically able! So I left the Group — not without some emotion.
A year later, I joined the Vancouver Writers Festival (VWF) and became one of more than 300 volunteers working before and during the annual festival. During the VWF I love meeting interesting folk, on a daily basis, who share a passion. Throughout the year, I may also volunteer for various VWF related activities that will accommodate our travel schedule.
I suppose you might say volunteering is one way of maintaining a feeling of relevance.”
From Glen: “The freedom that comes with retirement raises the question: what will I do with my time? Activities once relegated to leisure hours or holiday time can assume new importance and provide one answer. But for anyone, like me, who wants to maintain some continuity between work and retirement, serving as a volunteer has much to offer. When I joined the Board of our condominium association in Scottsdale, I did not know what my role would entail. Now scarcely a day goes by when I am not, however briefly, responding, often through email, to some issue and having a say about budgets, landscaping, building repairs, new projects and the like that actually make a difference to people’s lives. Pam and I also put together two HOA Newsletters every year, drawing on the skills of writing and editing that once informed our professional lives.
When almost every hour of the day can be construed as leisure time, leisure begins to lose its meaning. I still enjoy playing tennis, golfing, fly fishing, going to BC Lions games, movies and concerts, and enjoy these activities all the more as they are thrown into relief by a little enjoyable work, whether my participation on the Board or my ongoing attempt to turn the research I began as a professor into a book.”
Surveys of volunteers conclude volunteering enhances life satisfaction and improves levels of functioning. It also allows us to feel autonomous and in control. And, according to Sara Yogev, “When the volunteer activity is about a cause or organization about which we care, our firm commitment and sense of belonging to a social group with like-minded members can be a vaccine against depression.”
Please add your comments about the experience of volunteering. •