This is National Volunteer Week in Canada, typically, a time when those who donate their time are appreciated by whatever organization or cause their efforts support. As the NVW website says, without volunteers:
“Meals would have no wheels. Seniors would miss doctors’ appointments. Cats and dogs would have no foster homes. Walkways and driveways of elderly neighbours would pile up with snow. Groceries and food wouldn’t make it to those in need. Children’s sports teams would all be benched.”
Across the country, more than 13 million people provide their skills and services on a volunteer basis. This amounts to 166 million hours a month of work done at no cost, which in turn contributes $55 billion to the Canadian economy each year.
A lot of that volunteering looks very different now, and some has had to stop entirely. The Kingston Humane Society closed to the public almost a month ago, but was able to place all unowned animals in volunteer foster homes. Those remaining in the shelter, usually for health reasons, are being cared for by staff.
Meals on Wheels continues operations across the country, but has made changes to its programs. No more is the delivery of food an opportunity for a leisurely chat and visit: in most communities, food is left at the door. The volunteer driver either calls the person to let them know it is there or knocks on the door and steps away; in either case, they wait until the person opens the door and collects their food before offering a wave and hello and driving away.
Many food banks are distributing food from their parking lots.
Some volunteer opportunities are on a pause altogether: with courts closed, for instance, volunteers who accompany abused women to court have an unwanted break from their work. No team sports means no need for volunteer coaches. With limited in-person medical appointments, fewer drivers are required for that.
In other areas, more volunteer energy is needed; sometimes to replace volunteers who have had to stop because they have just returned from international travel, have greater family responsibilities due to the virus or are at risk themselves.
From fear-mongering to care-mongering
Fortunately, people are stepping up. In Toronto, for example, the Friendly Neighbour Hotline has opened to provide support for older people living in community housing. The Hotline connects those who need assistance with volunteers who do their grocery shopping, connect them with Meals on Wheels or pick up their prescriptions.
Medical students – with their studies on hold – have come together to offer free babysitting services to front-line health care workers with children.
In Kingston, Mutual Aid Katarokwi offers personal check-ins by telephone, text, email or FaceTime for those feeling isolated or stressed by the pandemic, as well as free delivery of groceries, food bank boxes and prescriptions.
There are opportunities for virtual volunteering across the country: reading books for libraries, managing social media for small organizations, working on fundraising campaigns.
The National Volunteer Week website offers tips for those who are doing in-person volunteering: avoid public transit where possible, plan ahead so you don’t have to use the washroom where you are volunteering, bring your own sanitizer, drinks and food, be even more rigorous than usual about handwashing and, of course, avoid all physical contact with those you are helping.
Solidarity and collectivity
In the words of American anarchist writer Cindy Milstein:
“While ‘social distancing’ is a necessary tool to help flatten the curve of this virus, it will only be effective if it’s grounded in an ethics and practice of social solidarity and collective care. COVID-19 clearly demonstrates that only by deeply looking out for one another – acting as if everyone’s life has inherent worth and is at risk; as if the health of one is the health of all—will we actually be able to lessen the amount of sickness and death, not to mention the emotional weight on us all. Unless everyone cooperates, the virus exponentially spreads.”
This is the week not just to celebrate those who have been long-standing volunteers in our community, but also those who have jumped in during COVID-19 to make sure others in their community have what they need, whether that is food, medication, a dog walked, garbage put out to the curb or a kind word and smile. It is also the week for all of us to make an extra effort to offer something of ourselves to those around us.