It can be argued that volunteering is the lifeblood of Canadian society. For the millions of Canadians across this country who volunteer their time and expertise to a myriad of causes and organizations, their acts of giving help shape the society we live in. Without them, many services and programs would simply not be available and many organizations—especially those offering social services—would not be able to function.
“There’s no question, our society would be very different without volunteers,” says Dawn Wilkinson, community services manager with Kelowna Community Resources.
Wilkinson describes volunteering as “under valued and under recognized” but a natural necessity.
And, in some cases, it’s event mandated by government. To incorporate as a not-for-profit organization in B.C., Wilkinson said a group must have at least three volunteers sit on its board. Many organizations have as many as nine.
As we enter national Volunteer Week next week (April 6 to 12), a time set aside to recognize the contribution of volunteers, it’s worth noting an estimated 53 per cent of Kelowna area residents volunteer—higher than both the federal and provincial averages.
And among the thousands of locals giving their time to everything from minor sports to daycares, health-related causes to fund-raising events, one woman is doing her part not only to volunteer but also raise awareness about the ongoing need locally to pitch in and lend a hand.
Cally Closs had an idea a few months ago that she says slowly turned into an obsession.
The 23-year-old life coach, who runs her own business, decided to take a month off work and donate her time to a different not-for-profit organization in Kelowna every day during the month of April.
Her 30-Day Difference, as she calls it, has several goals.
She wants to highlight the need for volunteers and raise awareness of the 30 groups she will volunteer with during the month. She also wants the community to see just how many groups are out there that depend on volunteers. But most of all, she wants to inspire others to give their time.
Closs plans to write about her experiences, as well talk about the organizations on her blog (callycloss.com/blog), she says her message is simple: get involved.
“I want people to think: ‘If she’s doing this, why can’t I?’” says Closs, who has lived in Kelowna since she was three and during that time has been involved with a few volunteer projects both locally and in other countries.
Unaware she was starting her 30-Day Difference just days before the start of national Volunteer Week, Closs said she was primarily inspired by her coaching work with individuals where she has seen the value and fulfilment that comes with contributing.
Volunteering plays a large role in many organizations in the Central Okanagan.
One example is the Kelowna Women’s Shelter, a facility Closs will volunteer with later this month.
According to Kathleen Lemieux, resource development coordinator for the shelter, last year its roster of volunteers provided 10,000 hours of work to help the shelter provide free services to women and their children.
And that means more than just a safe place to stay. It means counselling, childcare, clothing and support.
Like so many not-for-profit organizations across the country, the Kelowna
Women’s Shelter could not afford to pay for the time contributed by its volunteers, even at minimum wage.
Without its volunteers, many, if not all of the services, would simply not be available.
It’s a similar situation at the Kelowna Gospel Mission, where Closs saw first hand how critical those volunteers are during her first day of volunteering.
During a tour of the facility on Leon Avenue in downtown Kelowna, she was shown where the men and women who use the shelter sleep and eat, as well as the many other services the mission provides, such as a free dental clinic staffed by volunteer dentists and hygienists and complete with modern equipment donated by other dental clinics. There is also a barbershop, staffed by volunteer hair stylists and she was told about the mission’s free chiropractic service offered by volunteer chiropractors.
Then there is the mission’s thrift store, run by volunteers. The store not only relies on donations and the work of the volunteers, it also helps cloth clients who use the mission and helps raise money to support its services and programs.
“Some people think of us as simply a place to sleep and get a meal, but we offer much more,” says Sonja Menyes, volunteer coordinator for the Kelowna Gospel Mission.
The mission has 82 beds for men and eight for women (it works in conjunction with the local women’s shelter) and provides showers, laundry facilities and even a place for people who are staying there to keep their pets.
And like other not-for-profit facilities, Menyes says it could not operate without volunteers.
During her time at the mission, Closs worked in the kitchen, where she participated in preparation the 400 meals per day the mission provides for those on the streets in Kelowna.
And she learned it is not just the people who run the facility who are appreciative of the work volunteers do—it’s also the people who use the services.
“Without the volunteers to help hold you up, it would be tough. They do a great job,” says Rob Riches, a former mission client who now volunteers his time to help at a facility that helped him when he needed it a few years ago.
“Without the mission, it would be tough to get through the day for many people,” adds Riches. “It’s a Godsend to have that help.”
Illustrating the wide variety of groups that rely on volunteers in this community, the second day of Closs’s 30-DayDifference took her from the gritty downtown streets of Kelowna to the countryside of east Kelowna where she volunteered at Arion Therapeutic Riding Farm.
The farm—which provides equine therapy for the disabled and special needs children and adults—has grown in the last few years, thanks to the work of a volunteer effort to raise more than $150,000 to build an indoor riding arena. The building allows the farm to offer its services throughout the year more easily, especially in the winter.
For many of its clients, the continuity of riding is as important as the riding therapy itself.
The 12-acre farm keeps the 18-member staff, and about180 volunteers, very busy, says executive director Dustin Drader.
“There’s no way we could do this without our volunteers,” he says, as one of the farm’s clients, Stephane Bonin, is lowered from his wheelchair onto the back of Herbie, a 10-year-old therapy horse.
The procedure requires the help of at least three volunteers as well as head instructor Michelle Warren.
Bonin, 32, has cerebral palsy and the riding therapy helps build up his strength. As one volunteer leads Herbie at a gentle walking pace, two others help steady Bonin on the horse’s back.
According to his caregiver Kathy Charlesworth, Bonin looks forward to his weekly visits to the farm.
“The volunteers really are amazing,” says Charlesworth. “The work they do is so important for people like Stephane and it allows him to get out and enjoy life.”
For Closs, an experienced horsewoman herself who has competed in rodeos, the experience at Arion was something new.
“With the therapeutic aspect and getting to meet some of the clients, it was really amazing,” she says.
“I’ve only started but I’m really realizing the wide variety of volunteering opportunities there are out there.”
With Arion expanding its offerings—it now has programs for both special needs and non-special needs children and adults—as well as being a horse farm that requires the usual upkeep, the work force of volunteers is varied.
For Barb Gebert and Ruth Klette, who have been volunteering at Arion since day one, working at the farm is rewarding.
The pair, who met on that first day and have been friends since, have also been able to add their own touch to what the farm offers.
The women work their shifts together and cleared what was a weed and nettled covered creek bank on the property on their own time to create what they call the farm’s “therapy garden.”
It’s now a small, tranquil, grassed area where visitors to the farm like to sit, chat and contemplate life.
“Our shifts start at 10:30 (a.m.) so we would come in at eight and just start clearing,” says Gebert, “It’s very rewarding.”
And it is that sense of reward that Wilkinson says drives many who volunteer.
She says while most want to give back in some way, few volunteers will continue long-term if they feel they are not getting something out of the work they are doing.
And for most volunteers, that is the sense they are making their community a better place.
According to national volunteering statistics, 93 per cent of Canadians volunteer to help improve their community.
Nationally, 47 per cent of Canadians volunteer. In B.C. that number rises to 49 per cent and in Kelowna it is even higher at 53 per cent.
The average number of hours volunteered locally by individuals is 248, well above the B.C. and national averages.
Despite that strong local volunteer spirit, any group that relies on volunteers will tell you there is always the need for more.
Every September, Kelowna Community Resources holds its annual Volunteer Fair that tries to match up potential volunteers with local groups looking for help.
Last year’s fair attracted more than 1,000 people to check out the 80 not-for-profit organizations which had displays.
And that match-making pays off, says Wilkinson.
As an example, the Kelowna Museums Society had 200 people express interest at the fair and a year later 30 of them are still volunteering with the society. This year, the Volunteer Fair will celebrate its 17th anniversary.
In addition, Kelowna Community Resources also has an ongoing web-based volunteer opportunities search available on its website (http://kelowna.cioc.ca/volunteer/) that allows a person to enter his or her details and what they would like to do. A not-for-profit that could potentially be a match then contacts the person.
As for next week, KCR will mark national Volunteer Week with three volunteer-oriented events, a workshop aimed at helping volunteer managers and coordinators, a forum for volunteer board members and an exhibit at the Kelowna Museum to thank volunteers.
For more information on all three events go to: http://kcr.ca/community-services/community-information-volunteer-centre/volunteer-not-for-profit-services/national-volunteer-week/.
As for Closs, she will continue her 30-Day Difference in the hope that even more people will follow her lead and find a cause they can help.
The groups she will work with are varied, some better known than others, including Canadian Mental Health, the Inn From The Cold shelter, Habitat For Humanity, the Harmony Barbershop Society, The Responsible Animal Care Society, the local boys’ and girls’ clubs, the Seniors’ Outreach Society, B.C. Interior Horse Rescue and SSNA MedWatch.
“I expect it will be eye-opening but I think it will reinforce what I’m trying to do, and that’s get people involved,” says Closs.