Help wanted

Barrie Baptie lived for his job. A high school biology teacher in Vancouver for close to 30 years, Baptie’s enthusiasm for his subject — particularly for sea-life — was contagious.“My wife and I talked about what I was going to do after retirement,” he says. “It would have been too tough on me to get out of education altogether and I was eager to apply the expertise I’d developed over the years.”

The answer? Volunteering at the Vancouver Aquarium. Baptie now spends two half-days a week there, doing everything from cleaning tanks and feeding animals, to giving students hands-on experience with sea creatures. The rewards are twofold: The students benefit by learning from someone who has years of science expertise and Baptie keeps active in a profession he clearly enjoys.

Across Canada, there are an estimated 7.5 million volunteers like Baptie — many of them aged 50-plus — giving something back to society. But despite this high figure, in terms of time and dollars Canada is still painfully short of volunteer help.

Says Barbara Buckspan, manager of a program for volunteers age 55-plus at the Toronto Volunteer Centre: “It’s partly related to the tough social and economic environment we’re living in. There’s a decrease in government support for programs and greater reliance on individuals in communities to come forward. Consequently there is a very, very urgent need for volunteers.”

Not that there’s any shortage of choice in the volunteer work arena — the variety of work available is limited only by the imagination. Just ask Don Taylor and you’ll get an earful about choices. He runs a service at the Toronto Volunteer Centre that offers solid management experience to non-profit organizations. “Forty per cent of the volunteers who’ve signed up with The Management Assistance Service are retired. Some left their jobs before they were really ready to retire and are eager to make use of their skills.” In particularly high demand are volunteers with marketing experience and those who can chair meetings like Gwen Haliburton, 58, of Halifax, who has been volunteering in this area for 30 years. Today she’s on the board of governors of Mount St. Vincent University and chairs a fund-raising committee for a new theatre complex.

But Haliburton cautions that volunteers should hold out for a job that suits their skills and personality. “I’ve been invited to do many things that didn’t work for me, so I knew it wasn’t going to work for them either.”

Finding your niche

So how do you find out what’s right for you? The answer: research.

Make your first step a visit to the local volunteer centre. A lot of care is given to matching a potential volunteer’s skills and interests with an organization or cause. There’s also a growing number of websites run by centres and organizations which outline volunteering opportunities.

The key to successful volunteering is picking the right assignment and the right number of hours. And given the high demand for volunteers, this is increasingly easy to do. Rose Marie Garvy, 64, of Edmonton, is a case in point. She likes to set her own hours and chooses her volunteer assignments accordingly. She spends about 40 hours a month doing work for Amnesty International, writing letters to political authorities on behalf of prisoners of conscience (people in jail who have not been formally charged). Garvy is also setting up a computerized system to organize news clippings for the provincial museum and has established a routine that suits her schedule. “I like to keep busy, I’m always ready to hit the road. But I’m retired, man! I don’t like to be tied down to specific times.”

Work, learn and have fun

There’s another very important element to volunteering — the enjoyment factor. Charlotte Cochrane, 57, of Halifax, says it’s because of fun that she stays involved in her local YWCA. “Volunteering isn’t a whole lot different than working, except you don’t get a paycheque. The neat thing is you usually have a lot of fun, which paid employment sometimes doesn’t provide.”

For many 50-plus volunteers, part of that fun is developing a new skill. Barbara Buckspan of the Toronto Volunteer Centre says: “If you volunteer to do clerical work at a community centre, and need to brush up on your computer skills, you can take a course. If you want to be a tour guide at a museum, you’ll be trained in how to deal with the public as well as learn about the exhibits. You can get up to speed on so many things.”

Once volunteers find the right fit, they rarely look back. A team of retirees from Edmonton is a good example. Bernice Zapf, George Letki and Les Douglas — all in their sixties — help businesses run employee campaigns for the United Way. “I went to a large company that wasn’t aware of what the United Way does,” says Letki. “I gave 30 presentations to the employees and they ended up surpassing their fund-raising efforts by 75 per cent.” Team member Les Douglas echoes this enthusiasm. “We’ve seen the difference we’ve made in peoples’ lives and I don’t know of anyone involved in raising money for the United Way who thinks it wasn’t a positive experience for them. Bernice Zapf says she was hooked the first year she started volunteering. “It’s my chance to give something back to Edmonton – the community has been so good to me.”

Giving something back to the community is a key motivator for many 50-plus volunteers. Cliff and Louise Booker of Thorold, Ont., decided they’d get involved in their local Meals on Wheels program. “We waited five years to get into a seniors’ apartment building, and once that happened, we thought it was time for us to give something back,” Louise Booker says. The couple, now in their early seventies, found out about the program through a fellow resident in their building. According to Cliff Booker, providing a necessary service is rewarding. “You get to know the people you visit. Sometimes you go into their homes and they may not be feeling well. You help out where you can. You don’t just drop off a meal and leave.”

Sir Winston Churchill once said, “You make a living by what you get, but a life by what you give.” You’d be hard pressed to find a volunteer to disagree with that statement.