KCR: Sharing a story of ‘informal volunteering’

A personal account from Randal Friesen highlights how volunteering doesn’t need to be an organized effort

We have been sharing weekly stories about volunteers and organizations but volunteerism can also be informal. Many of you may already be involved in informal volunteering without even thinking about it. It could be as simple as buying groceries for your elderly friend, shovelling your neighbour’s driveway, or babysitting for free. In this week’s article, we offer a personal account from Randal Friesen about how his informal volunteering experience turned into lifelong friendships and an incredibly rewarding family tradition:

Volunteering is worth it, although perhaps I overdid it one Christmas when I was a university student.

I met an international university student from Korea who was spending his winter holiday in Canada, alone and away from his family.

I volunteered to take him snowshoeing. He told a friend which led to a few other international students gathering to try snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

This, in turn, grew to 10 international students and two Canadians going on a hilarious winter camping trip.

A potentially dark and lonely winter holiday turned into a fun-loving group from Korea, Indonesia, Japan, Germany, and Canada heading out to the bush to snowshoe, dig snow quinzees, and cook over a campfire.

That was a volunteering experience I’ll never forget.

To be fair, I come from a family of volunteers. My mom told me that she remembers her parents in the 1960s hosting international students with no place to stay for the Christmas holidays.

In high school, I got used to celebrating Christmas with international students studying in Canada. My parents regularly hosted foreigners who were alone during the winter holidays, a time when daylight hours are short, and family seemed so far away for many.

We’d cook meals, play games, give gifts, and buy groceries for them to cook comfort meals from their countries of origin.

In fact, Christmas wasn’t the same without students from China or Turkey or Peru in our home.

The obvious benefit of volunteering is the good we do for others. Contributing to the well-being of people who struggle can make a deeply personal, positive impact. It can change lives.

Whether we volunteer in a soup kitchen, join a quilting group assembling female hygiene kits to send to girls overseas, help a Syrian family get driver’s licenses, or take a group of lonely students out winter camping during Christmas, real lives are impacted.

The not-so-obvious benefit of volunteering is the personal enrichment it brings. Groan. Another cliché. Wait…hear me out.

I’m no geneticist, but I’m pretty sure contributing to the well-being of others is ingrained in humans.

Sure, tribalism and polarization seem to dominate the news headlines; but compassion and empathy are also part of human nature. Supporting people, showing up, donating, mentoring, participating in community events; these are all natural human inclinations as well.

They may not get the same press coverage, but they make our lives better. Helping out feels good. Volunteering gives a positive sense of agency.

Need a perspective shift? Volunteer with newcomers who came through the refugee program, adjusting to life in the Okanagan.

My wife, kids and I, had the privilege of mentoring a family like this from Syria. We witnessed first-hand the resilience of the human spirit in the face of life-changing circumstances.

Getting to know people from other walks of life – or even other parts of the planet – fosters a sense of belonging and much-needed human connection. I’ve developed lasting friendships and gained new perspectives through my volunteer experiences.