Have any stories of volunteer heroes?

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As much as I hate to admit it, I haven’t volunteered since I was a University student. Even then, my commitment was minimal. What started as a four-month requirement for a course I was taking ended up being an 18-month stint that I really enjoyed. Unfortunately, as much I enjoyed manning the phones at a Toronto Distress Centre four-hours-a-week, I just couldn’t find the time. Between my studies and part-time job there just weren’t enough hours in a week.

Add toddler, dog, family and house to the mix and volunteering quickly becomes Mission Impossible. I would love to volunteer but time is a hot commodity for me these days – though I think if the right opportunity were to present itself I would probably find the time. I do manage to find two hours per week to watch my two favourite television shows so I am sure finding a few more hours would be doable. But I would have to be really motivated.

According to Volunteer Canada, Canada’s voluntary sector is second in the world only to that of the Netherlands, with 12.5 million volunteers contributing 2.1 billion hours of service each year. That’s incredible – but not surprising given that we are considered to be among the most polite people in the world. Nearly half of us (46%) give our time to help others, and the stories that fill the pages of this issue tell us that it makes a huge difference.

With mounting human resource shortages and budget constraints on health-care organizations across the country, volunteerism has become integral to the delivery of health care. With an aging population that will inevitably put even more pressure on the system, health care facilities will rely on volunteers even more. However, there is no guarantee that Canadians will continue to be as generous with their time. “The voluntary sector in Canada is at a critical crossroads. Currently, 7 per cent of the country’s volunteers are contributing 78 per cent of the volunteer hours. These ‘uber volunteers’ are aging, and the next generation of volunteers isn’t necessarily following in their footsteps,” explains Ruth MacKenzie, President & CEO, Volunteer Canada.

After reading the inspiring stories of volunteering in this issue I got really ambitious and decided to look into my options to see what opportunities are available. I looked on the websites of more than eight hospitals through-out the GTA and all of them (with the exception of one) currently had no positions available. One hospital had positions posted but above those postings included a blurb indicating that there was a long wait list for volunteer positions.

I have to admit I was shocked by this. Wait lists of people willing to work for free? Having a plentiful and skilled volunteer force at the ready costs money, with security checks, training etc. I understand that it may be hard to justify when a health care facility is over-budget and making cuts. But if our health-care system is to handle the influx of aging boomers, it will be in large part, because of volunteers.

So the time to recruit and attract volunteers, and develop programs and strategies to retain them is now. What can hospitals do better to strengthen their volunteer base? MacKenzie says: “Most important thing all voluntary organizations can do to recruit and retain volunteers is to properly recognize the volunteer’s efforts. Telling volunteers how their contributions are making a positive impact is one of the best ways to thank them. Volunteers want to know the impact of their contributions – and ultimately, knowing they’ve made a difference is their biggest reward. Various research studies, including recent ones conducted by Volunteer Canada, cite this form of recognition as critically important to volunteer retention. It is also important for hospitals to engage volunteers from a skills-based approach, by creating volunteer opportunities that involve skilled volunteers in meaningful, impactful roles, and then demonstrating that impact to the volunteer.”

Of course, Hospital News is willing to do our part as well.  If you want to honour the work of a volunteer at your organization, email me.  If there is enough interest, I will start a monthly Volunteer Hero column, where a story and photo of your volunteer will appear.

There are some exciting things happening at Hospital News.  If you visit www.hospitalnews.com you will see we have launched a new website.  I welcome any comments or feedback you have about it. We are always interested in what our readers have to say.