The Value of The One – The Power of The Many

The Value of One – The Power of Many
Reflections on National Volunteer Week during a Pandemic

Written and submitted to JSGB for publication by: Shelly Sargent


National Volunteer Week 2021 takes place from April 18-24, 2021 and this year’s theme is “the value of one, the power of many.” This is a theme that would resonate with me any year; but is especially meaningful this year.

We are living in difficult, troubled times. The life we once enjoyed has ground to an inelegant halt and we really don’t know if we will ever return to what we once considered normal. In addition to all the shutdowns, restricted personal freedoms and worries around our health, there are other changes which impact our community and ourselves. One of those changes is our ability to volunteer.

Like so many of us, I started volunteering before I truly knew what that word meant. My family – my community – operated on the principal that if you have a free hand to help, you should. And at its core, that is basically what volunteering is all about. That philosophy meant that if someone needed a hand carrying things, piling up firewood, watching their children for an hour, etc., you offered to help. Parents often “volun-told” their kids to do things to help another, explaining simply that their assistance was needed.  Volunteering was a way of life… even if you didn’t realize you were doing it or what it was really called.

As I grew up, I formalized my volunteering a bit more. I volunteered to create posters for my drama club in high school and to help plan year-end festivities and communications during my last year of college. An advocate of social housing, I volunteered to sit on a founding board of directors for a new cooperative housing corporation in my twenties. I volunteered to help plant spring bulbs at a new school when visiting a cousin… and so on. By the time an employer gave me the task of coordinating our volunteer activities, I was an ‘old hand’ at volunteering. Still a volunteer in my late 50’s, I currently manage, support and champion a large team of volunteers as part of my job. But when the COVID-19 virus reared its ugly head, one of the first things that was affected for our organization and many others was the ability to have volunteers in our workplace.

Over the past year, in-person volunteering has been greatly limited due to safety considerations. Long-standing volunteer roles within non-profits and charities have had to change substantially.  Boards and committees have had to embrace platforms like Zoom and do volunteer work by conference call and email. Some organizations who rely on program volunteers have placed their volunteers on hiatus, unsure of when they can be called back. Secondary school students are scrambling to find ways to fulfil their 40-hour community service requirement before graduation. It’s disheartening, to say the least. But in spite all the changes, restrictions and cancellations, something quite wonderful has been happening; grass roots volunteering is alive and well… and in fact, seems to be growing in response to the community’s need.

What do I mean by grass roots volunteering? That is what happens when a young mom on social media mentions in passing that they are running low on diapers but concerned about going out with their wee one in this environment… and several folks in the same group offer to do the running. It is when a woman who has been crafting to help make ends meet finds an anonymous, donated bag of craft materials on her porch. Or when local shoppers drop a few extra dollars at the check-out to help the local food bank. When a local store offers to sell an adolescent’s homemade bird houses in their store – asking no commission or fee – just hoping to support a young entrepreneur who is trying to make a dollar during a tough time. When a team of folks give up their Saturday morning to take goodies out to local parks and hang them up so area families can enjoy a scavenger hunt. When an elderly neighbour is seen walking around with his equally elderly dog, collecting trash as he goes. When a local restaurant makes a daily batch of simple meals and offers them free – no questions asked – to anyone who may be struggling.

It’s all these things and more, happening all around us every day. And it’s wonderful. “We” are wonderful, because as a community, we are doing things which support each other and lighten each other’s load, just a little bit.

We are living through a time when we might be forgiven if we succumbed to the temptation pf dwelling on the negatives: what is out of reach; what isn’t fair; what’s been taken away.  But this week (and going forward), perhaps we should dwell on and acknowledge something that is being given to us instead… and that is time and care. When you see someone who needs a hand, reach out to them. And if you see someone volunteering – helping because it is needed and because they can – say a heartfelt thank you.


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