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'Pay it forward': Volunteers enrich community ... and themselves

Several Barrie-area organizations say they're feeling the pinch when it comes to finding people to fill crucial roles

Hit by a decline in volunteer numbers, critical non-profit service providers in Barrie shared their concerns, strategies and hopes as they navigate through an unsettling situation that many community-based organizations across Canada have been facing since the start of the pandemic.

Giovanna Del Pellaro, who is the volunteer resources manager at Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) in Barrie, said the reduction in the number of volunteers at the hospital is notable.

“Prior to the pandemic, we had just over 500 members of our Blue Brigade," she told BarrieToday. "Today, we have 285 active volunteers.”

Pellaro says the drop in volunteers at RVH can be attributed to several reasons.

“Many of our volunteers are seniors and are uncomfortable coming back to a health centre while COVID-19 is still active in the community," she said. "Other volunteers found their former role was changed due to pandemic restrictions and, in some cases, duties were integrated into the responsibility of full-time staff positions.”

Pellaro says one big issue with volunteer recruitment is that many people find it hard to fit volunteering into their busy schedules, and that it’s the organization’s job to share the benefits of volunteerism in the hope that people will give their time.

“We know that when people are passionate about a cause they will find time to support that cause. In fact, many of our volunteers have had a positive experience at RVH, which has impacted their lives in such a significant way they wanted to pay it forward," she said. 

Pellaro says volunteer opportunities can’t be a one size fits all.

“Volunteer engagement professionals need to think of innovative ways to attract various types of volunteers and create opportunities that can fit various levels of commitment," she said. 

According to Pellaro, volunteer recruiters also need to emphasize how important volunteers are to organizations and people in the community, and the difference that volunteers truly can make in the lives of other people.

Pellaro stressed the fact that RVH is the centre of the community, and that people who live in the region will likely all require the services of the hospital at some point in their lives.

“Whether you are a patient or visiting a family member, navigating your health-care journey is made much easier having a friendly, helpful person to help support while you are here," she said. 

Addressing potential candidates, Pellaro says volunteering at RVH offers the opportunity to make a real difference in patients’ lives, and also a way to stay connected to your community.

“Whether you’re a high school student wanting to get your foot in the door to learn about the working world, or a newcomer to Barrie wanting to gain a sense of community, we endeavour to offer various types of volunteer opportunities that everyone can enjoy," she said. 

Gaja Damas, who is the director of program support and volunteer services at IOOF Seniors Homes, said the long-term care provider has been facing similar challenges that other non-profit organizations are experiencing with volunteer recruitment.

“Like others, we are currently developing new strategies and engagement tools to recruit young adults and newly retired community members," Damas said.

She says the main recruitment challenge has been to remind the community of the volunteer needs in the long-term care industry.

“There are tremendous opportunities available that touch and transform lives in a positive way on both sides of the volunteering relationship," Damas told BarrieToday.

Strategies to restore previous volunteering levels, Damas said, should consider that volunteers were mainly seniors prior to the pandemic and therefore, many had to take a step back.

“We need to rethink our recruitment strategies to engage youth, adults and seniors, and to share the important stories from the pandemic while educating about the ways volunteers contribute in a positive way to enrich the lives of seniors," she said. 

Damas noted that, coming through the pandemic, there has never been a more poignant time to reconnect with seniors at IOOF.

“Many of our seniors are vulnerable, have experienced isolation and looking to reconnect with their communities," she said. 

Damas believes that volunteering enriches lives within the community, and as anyone who has volunteered can attest to, it also brings meaning, joy and purpose to those that volunteer.

Areas of need at the IOOF’s long-term care home include friendly visiting, reading, tuck shop, palliative care, and assistance at mealtimes and recreation programs.

“We have both direct contact volunteer positions, as well as behind-the-scenes tasks and administrative roles available,” Damas said.

Joanne Oblin, volunteer co-ordinator at the child protection agency Simcoe Muskoka Family Connexions (SMFC), has also noticed a drop in volunteers when the pandemic hit.

“There is a strong focus on recruitment efforts now to increase our roster and get the word out that we are in need of volunteers, particularly volunteer drivers," Oblin told BarrieToday.

Oblin explained that volunteer drivers use their own vehicles to provide an invaluable service by assisting staff and foster families with the transportation needs of children in the care of SMFC.

“Volunteer drivers transport children and their families to various appointments such as access visits, medical appointments and schools throughout Muskoka, Simcoe County and other areas throughout Ontario as requested by the agency,” she said.

Oblin also says it’s been a challenge not having the opportunity to meet people in person, such as at volunteer fairs to recruit volunteers.

“In the past, we have had great success when attending volunteer fairs and having the opportunity to meet our community face-to-face and explain our volunteer needs,” she said, adding that for 2023, SMFC is planning on attending more in-person events.

Other volunteer roles currently needed at SMFC include parent assistants, who provide a parent/guardian with emotional support, guidance and practical skills; tutors to provide children with assistance on their homework; and mentors, who assist a child that needs extra support and encouragement and who will benefit from regular, one-to-one time.

Oblin pointed out that time is currently a challenge for many people trying to balance work, family and finding time to volunteer. Yet, she says SMFC can work with its volunteers’ schedules.

“Our volunteer roles offer flexibility to potential volunteers with time constraints. If a person can only volunteer one to two days a week, we can work with them to help meet the volunteer’s needs and SMFC’s needs," she said. 

For more information on volunteer opportunities with the above organizations, contact: 

Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre: 705-739-5650 or [email protected]

IOOF Seniors Homes Inc.: Gaja Damas at [email protected] or 705-728-2389, ext. 338,

Simcoe Muskoka Family Connexions: Joanne Oblin at [email protected]