When the smiles are free

Not Milton, but a volunteer who I'm sure is equally helpful and cheerful

I’d noticed them vaguely before, of course, as we probably all do. They subtly blend into the background, popping up when we need them, but never getting in our face. But only recently, starting at the Vancouver airport, and more noticeably at the hospital last week, did I really appreciate them. They are the white-haired (although some are spectacularly dyed) volunteers who help us navigate our way, and generally make life easier for us in large public spaces.

While I had found the smiling, elderly volunteer at the Vancouver airport to be helpful to me last November, it was my visit to a Toronto hospital last week that showed me just how much I appreciated these volunteers. Several times, while getting lost in the labyrinth that most hospitals are, I was put on to the right path by a helpful grandparent-like guide. (Once, when I stepped off the blue line on the floor that was designed to assist me to the correct department, my guide even gently scolded me, just like a helpful grandma.) I interacted with cheerful seniors who flipped through their hospital guidebooks with authority and confidence, and who spoke to confused hospital visitors in slow, soothing voices.

But it was Milton, a lovely white-haired man in my department, who really impressed me. He shuffled back and forth between doctors and administrators, pulling folders and files, then calling out and guiding patients. He joked with the staff, and mildly flirted with the ladies, and if we had entered the waiting room glum or bored, within 10 minutes, I could tell that there was a general air of contentment and good humour that had settled upon us. Milton really impressed me because he showed a volunteer quality that so often seems missing in paid workers: He genuinely enjoyed what he was doing, and looked like he wanted to be there.

Our daughter, then 3, with our former cat, Zip

A couple of recent things came to mind, other than my hospital visit, to re-awaken in me an appreciation of volunteers. First, National Volunteer Week is coming up April 18-24, a campaign that is little known. This event is designed to support and thank often underappreciated volunteers, and awaken in citizens the desire to volunteer for their community. Second, our daughter has decided that as soon as she turns nine, in one month, she will start volunteer work. I’ve encouraged her for the past few years to start thinking about something that she will enjoy doing, and she has decided that her field of volunteer work will involve helping an animal shelter (a cause dear to her heart since we’ve had to give up our cats because of her allergies, and something for which she has fundraised, since the age of six).

Since she was about the age of five, I’ve emphasised to her the importance of volunteerism. Partly, I want my children to volunteer because I want to instill in them the sense that it is good to help others, and not because you feel obligated. (The Ontario school system apparently requires all high school students to have completed a minimum of 40 hours of community service by the time they graduate. And while it is admirable that the Board of Education wants to have students help their community as part of their schooling, the sense that it is required seems to defeat the purpose, as I’ve at times found myself in the presence of teenagers who are obviously not enthusiastic about their role.) But just as important for me to share with my kids is the knowledge that a volunteer benefits personally as much from the experience, as he or she gives to it.

I had volunteered for UNICEF in high school, but it wasn’t until my first year at university that I truly enjoyed my volunteer experiences. As a student away from home, making new friends and immersing myself in a different culture, I was still feeling at times lonely. So I decided that what I needed was to be helping other people. At the beginning of the school year, the university student association organises an Activities Night, where various campus groups, teams, and organisations jostle for the attention of students who are looking for extra-curricular activities to fill in the space between classes. One of the tables which seemed rather empty most of the time was the one recruiting volunteers for local not-for-profit groups. (Really, how could volunteerism compete with co-ed sports, choirs, and newspapers and journals?) It was there that I would find two of my most satisfying experiences during my uni years.

My first volunteer role was as an afterschool homework and activities helper in Little Burgundy, a then-disadvantaged neighbourhood in Montreal (although I’m sure that it, like many Montreal neighbourhoods, has been greatly gentrified by now). I loved that community centre, I really did. Sure, it would look great on a resumé to say that I had experience working with kids, but I enjoyed being there just because it was fun. I loved entering that centre twice a week, wondering what kind of fourth-grade math problems would face me this week, or what crafts I would be doing with little fingers, or what games and sports we would be playing in the gym. I believe that for many of us volunteers from the university, it was our way to forget about term papers, grades, and the social pressures at school, and just be a kid.

My other, longer-lasting volunteer experience was with an on-campus organisation that helped seniors who lived by themselves in the downtown area. (While I tried to juggle both volunteer positions concurrently, I was getting too busy, and by my third year, I had to make the tough decision to drop one.) In this volunteer role, I would be on-call, as my class schedule permitted, to help seniors to their appointments or on shopping trips. Sometimes, they just wanted to go for a walk or on a lunch outing, because they had no one else to go with them. Sometimes we were even asked to walk their dog for them. Eventually, I was matched up as a “friendly visitor” to one senior, whom I visited two hours a week. Of course, the two hours often lasted six or eight, and involved making meals from scratch and watching hockey games late into the evening. I truly loved the volunteer work that I did in that capacity because it made me feel needed, but just as importantly, it gave me a grandparent-figure, whom I had been missing in my life. I know that for quite a few of us student friendly-visitors, these “grandparents” gave just as much to us emotionally as we did to them, and those relationships affected us well beyond graduation. The volunteer work that I did for that organisation eventually led to a paid one-year contract as coordinator of their programme, with an offer to stay on permanently. If I had chosen a different career path and gone into social work, I’m sure that I’d still be with them today.

All this is to say that I truly miss volunteer work, and I would encourage anybody with a few free hours a week to contact their nearest volunteer centre. Currently, I find my life too busy with kids, work, and personal duties. But one day soon, I will get back into volunteerism, and hopefully find myself again in a great role. My former volunteer work made me enjoy being around seniors, and maybe that’s why I appreciate so many of them now. Well, that and the fact that if they’re all as friendly and helpful as Milton was, and with such freely-offered smiles on their faces, they make the day so much brighter. National Volunteer Week may take place next week, but for me, I enjoy my interactions with volunteers any day of the year.