Despite some worrying signs, Tri-Cities volunteerism strong amid national decline

SHARE Food Bank volunteers work during the pandemic. photo supplied

A variety of health concerns, cost of living increases and time pressures are wreaking havoc on organizations that rely on volunteers.

Across Canada, as many as 35 percent of organizations have cut back on the services they provide due to the volunteer shortage, according to a recent CBC article.

It’s a problem that seems to be growing, according SHARE Society CEO Claire MacLean.

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The food bank runs on volunteers who come in during business hours. That support is critical, MacLean says.

“We couldn’t do the volume of what we do without their support.”

However, finding people to work a consistent schedule has been a challenge.

“That’s just harder and harder for people,” MacLean says. “I think people’s lives are busier than ever.”

SHARE’s biggest needs are for seniors programs volunteers, which include things like giving a senior a lift to a doctor’s appointment, friendly visiting and light home repairs

Services at the food bank haven’t been affected, MacLean says. However, it is still a cause of some concern. Without a strong base of volunteers, organizations are forced to spend more time on fundraising.

“When you have paid staff doing work that volunteers could normally do, it just makes the program more expensive to deliver,” she says.

Local Meals on Wheels keeps rolling

After more than 50 years of delivering meals, Meals on Wheels for South Surrey and White Rock announced it was shutting down last October.

In the Tri-Cities, PoCoMo Meals on Wheels has been largely immune to the volunteer shorage.

“It hasn’t really affected us,” explains PoCoMo Meals on Wheels president Dimitri Harvalias. “We’ve been pretty fortunate. . . . We’ve got a pretty committed, core group of people.”

The organization relies on 20 volunteer drivers who deliver meals along four routes, five days a week. Most volunteers end up working one day a week for a maximum of three hours, Harvalias explains.

“We’re not really asking a whole lot,” he says.

The organization has picked up drivers through a volunteer fair, personal connections, and even over the net of a pickleball court, according to Harvalias.

With more people working from home during the pandemic, the meal demand dropped by about 25 to 30 percent.

“It’s now starting to build back up again,” Harvalias says.

The majority of the clients are seniors. However, they’ve also delivered food to people who struggle to cook for themselves due to some injury or ailment.

“A big benefit of the program is the fact that it allows us to have, basically a health check and a little check-in on the people we serve.”

Time and money

Approximately 11 percent of Canadians rely on charities to meet their basic needs, according to Canada Helps.

However, that figure may be increasing. A poll released last November found that 22 percent of Canadians said they planned to access charitable services in the next months, the Toronto Star reported. The rise in people relying on charity coincided with an increasing number of people looking to reduce their charitable donations.

The reduction in volunteers is caused by two key factors, according to Community Volunteer Connections executive director Filio Kondylis.

“We’re busier, there’s a lot more demanding our time,” she says.

However, there’s also been a failure to fund charities and non-profits in a way that keeps pace with rising costs, Kondylis explains.

“A lot of smaller organizations are suffering,” she says. “The demand for public services has increased, and that means more volunteers are needed. So, more volunteers are needed but people have less time.”

Kondylis emphasized the importance of ensuring charities and non-profits have necessary core funding. It’s especially important as charities help people with basic needs.

“The government hands that off to all these charities and non-profit societies, but the funding isn’t there for them to be as efficient as they need to be to be able to help people.”

Some good news

Compared to 2019, Coquitlam saw a nearly 14 percent increase in volunteer hours from in 2022 in the parks, recreation, culture and facilities division.

That jump was due to the return of volunteers who felt comfortable at their previous positions as well as some new volunteers wanting to “meet new people and be connected to the community,” according to acting community recreation manager Lesley Joyce.

There was no reduction in volunteerism in Port Moody, according to city staff.

Volunteerism is an indicator of community health, according to MacLean.

“A healthy community has strong volunteerism,” she says. “It gets people interacting with people that maybe they wouldn’t see in their day-to-day lives.”

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