National Volunteer Week: how our volunteers build community

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“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” –Marjorie Moore

Marge and Mark take a quick break from packing hampers in the warehouse.

Marge and Mark take a quick break from packing hampers in the warehouse.

This week is National Volunteer Week, and for a program like ours that relies on volunteers to run at all, it’s a pretty special one. A few weeks ago when I was looking for inspiration for volunteer week, I came across the quote above, by Marjorie Moore. As a self-admitted political junkie, I love the quote, and I love the idea that people can work together to create a place where they feel at home. Our volunteers come in every week (or in some cases, every day!) for their shifts—so what keeps them coming back? I think what draws volunteers in is that they feel a connection to and a passion for the vision of the House of Friendship: creating healthy communities where all can belong and thrive. So, what does that kind of community look like, and what values are volunteers voting for with their hours here? I have a few ideas.

A community that believes in the right to food

The first thing I see volunteers ‘voting’ for is a community where everyone has a right to food. Everyone here is passionate about feeding people, and about creating healthy hampers. When we don’t have fresh veggies to put into hampers for people I hear volunteers lamenting the fact that the hampers aren’t as healthy as usual. White bread is always left to the end, and whole wheat goes into hampers first.

Ursula bags up some mushrooms for hampers.

Ursula bags up some mushrooms for hampers.

Volunteers like Val are excited about ‘selling’ produce people may not know how to cook, like cabbage, turnip, or papaya. They recognize that if you live on low income it can be hard to afford healthy items, and they want to give people nourishing food their family will enjoy. Every day I see excited volunteers going through recipes with people getting food, even writing down tips to send along with them. Volunteers like volunteering here because they are drawn to food issues in some capacity. Like our volunteer Sherry said, “I volunteer here because I like helping people with their food.”

A community of care

Our volunteers are also voting for caring communities when they work here. I see volunteers every day who model the House of Friendship core values of compassion and dignity. For example, we often find our hamper packers comforting people they are packing hampers for, and talking them through difficult situations. Our volunteer Connie told me this story:

 “A woman came in last year who was on dialysis for her kidney, which is something that I went through a few years ago. She was just getting started so I gave her advice and food tips. I told her she had a long road ahead of her and to be best friends with her machine.”

Val, another volunteer who comes in on Thursdays, had this to say:

“I once met a woman who had just moved here to start a job because her husband had just been laid off. Before coming in she had just found out that she wouldn’t be able to start work for another 3 months. She was crying her eyes out because she felt so guilty to be on social assistance, but I told her she had been paying into the system for years and she deserved to be helped out when she needed it. I straightened her right out and she left in good shape.”

Stories like this aren’t uncommon. Coming in for a hamper is often an emotional experience, and comes with feelings of shame, or stress due to other life circumstances that led to someone needing food assistance. Our volunteer Bertha told me that when she first came in for a food hamper she felt terrible about it. She said, “I felt ashamed because I wanted to be working, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to be there at all. Now that I know people and I work here I feel a lot better about getting food when I need it.” Many of our volunteers have been in positions where they need food hampers, so they know how hard it is to walk through our doors. Sometimes, for people who come in, knowing that the person helping them has also faced food insecurity in the past can be a comfort–they feel less ashamed talking to someone who has been in the same position. Relating to someone at a vulnerable time in their lives is a powerful way to walk with them through food insecurity.

An inclusive community

A core House of Friendship value is inclusion: we believe everyone deserves a seat at the table. In line with this, a third way volunteers are creating the community they want to live in is through their interaction with other volunteers. We always say that we have people from all walks of life here, and it’s true! We have retirees from many different career paths, high school and university students, new Canadians, people with disabilities…everyone. And the great thing is that everyone is supportive of one another and gets to know each other.

Every day has an upbeat atmosphere in the warehouse, with volunteers singing, helping each other out, and getting caught up with one another. As one volunteer said, “People here have such individual personalities and it’s great to get to know them. I love getting to know the university students, and getting connected with things going on in the community that I didn’t know about.”

Steve, Betty, Ursula, Connie and Tiffany hang out in the lunchroom.

Steve, Betty, Ursula, Connie and Tiffany hang out in the lunchroom.

Last week I walked around our warehouse asking people why they keep coming back here to volunteer. So many of them responded that they keep coming back for the people. Oscar said, “because I like everyone else!” Marge said, “because of the wonderful staff, volunteers, and clients.” Sandy said, “because the volunteers here are like my second family.” Candace said, “I think I’m addicted! I love the people and the work, it makes me feel useful and important. And I like that my sense of humour is appreciated.” When I asked Val to describe the program in one word, she said “fabulous!” There’s a lot of love and appreciation for fellow volunteers and staff here, and that makes our program very welcoming and inclusive.

We say all the time that we wouldn’t be able to do what we do without volunteers. Sometimes I think we say it so much that it has lost its meaning a bit. In fact, we literally would not be able to give out as many hampers as we do without our volunteers. We can’t possibly express enough thanks for everything they do, from supporting people who come in for food, supporting one another, and making sure hampers get out to people who need them. On top of all this, they create a fun and welcoming environment for everyone.

From everyone here, thank you volunteers!

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One Response to “National Volunteer Week: how our volunteers build community”

  1. Volunteer Profile: Jane! | Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] like Jane do a great deal of the wonderful community building work here, which makes it possible for us to support so many others in our community. Since she started, […]

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