Discovering the joys of volunteering

April 15-21 marks National Volunteer Week, and it’s the one special time of year when we celebrate those who give of their time to make our communities a better place.

According to Volunteer Canada, Canadians have a rich history of volunteering and community involvement. With 12.5 million of them dedicating their time across Canada, volunteers are leading positive change on all fronts – community health care, sports and recreation, heritage and arts, environmental protection and advocacy, disaster relief, international development – you name it, there is likely some key way volunteers are helping to support it.

And as those who volunteer in any capacity know, there really is nothing quite like knowing you are making a difference.

My own experiences with volunteering have been varied and, I’m afraid to say, fairly inconsistent over the years. But I have tried to serve in a number of areas, and it’s always interesting to see what fits you best. Sometimes, it’s surprising.

I once signed up to help a local man with his English skills. Naturally, I thought that as a reporter, this would be the perfect area for me to lend a helping hand in. After all, I deal with language all day long.

But it wasn’t long before I realized this wasn’t a good fit.

After working all day writing stories, reading material and dealing with words, the last thing I felt like in the evening was trying to pass on knowledge in this area. I found my mind wandering and just felt too tired to do it. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy getting to know the guys from faraway places that I did tutor for several weeks. But I knew there had to be an area that would be a better fit.

Some time later, through my work, I did a story about continuing care. As the story took shape, it occurred to me that perhaps I had found the area of volunteering that might be suitable – visiting residents in local nursing homes.

I went through the orientation process via the local health authority at the time, and found that indeed I was interested. They lined up my first visit, and right off the bat we clicked. It was amazing to get to know this man who had grown up in Central Alberta, and to learn about his past and listen to his stories.

That was back in 2003, and to this day I still visit him. Not as often as I would like to, I admit. But we certainly have a strong connection that ensures he will always be a part of my life.

I believe the key to successful volunteering is finding something that is quite unlike what you typically do in your day-to-day routine. Sometimes, assuming that you should only explore areas that are familiar to you is a mistake, as I learned. There just isn’t the energy left over to help in those areas. But finding something fresh and new to you personally can be just the ticket, as then it grows into a learning experience for you as well.

Volunteers often say they get way more out of the experience than what they contribute, and I would have to agree with that. My friend at the care home has contributed richly to my life – I never leave our visits without feeling somehow lifted and encouraged. His perspective changes my perspective, and it’s wonderful to see how a simple visit can truly brighten someone’s day.

If you aren’t already volunteering, I would encourage you do try it out in some capacity. We are all busy in our lives, but it doesn’t take much time to lend a hand in some say, to help with a community project or to visit a lonely person who is just so in need of a chat.

Your life will be the richer for it.

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