By Dr. Jock Murray and Janet Murray
One of our favourite stories is about the day on the farm when Chicken Little, startled when an acorn fell on her head, ran around the farm yard yelling, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”
The animals all scurried to hide under barns and sheds, but the dog noticed a little bird lying on his back in the middle of the farmyard with his feet up in the air.
“Run and hide, little bird,” the dog said.
The little bird said, “I’m trying to hold up the sky.”
“You can’t hold up the sky with your little feet,” said the dog.
The little bird replied, “One does what one can.”
Doing what we can to help others is as old as our human race, going back to the earliest communal gatherings of humankind, when one person would voluntarily assist another or take action for the good of the community.
There are many terms to cover helping others, but in modern times “volunteering” is often used. The term was originally used to indicate those who offered to serve in a community militia, a volunteer army. In Britain in the 12th and 13th centuries, volunteer hospitals were found in most towns and cities. The Red Cross was based on the volunteer concept. During the first and second World Wars, the Commonwealth countries formed a group of mostly young women who served at home and at the front in various volunteer roles, such as cleaning, cooking, driving, and assisting nurses. They were called the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VADS), mostly well-educated young women who wanted to be part of the action, to bring what they could to a cause they believed in.
Now we refer to those who help the sick, work at the food bank, do the work in a local organization, sit on a committee or board, and help out at community events, as volunteers. It’s unfortunate that too few recognize how important volunteers are in a community. They are the oil that keeps a community running smoothly. About a third of the population does some sort of volunteering and many provide time and support for more than one cause.
Volunteers are mostly giving with no expectation of return, but there are rewards. When our children were having stressful times and feeling sad our advice was, “do something for others.” That may seem counterintuitive, but it always worked. They became volunteers early, at nursing homes, the IWK Children’s Hospital, the community, and for friends and relatives in need of a comforting hand.
Research on hormones and brain activity has demonstrated that volunteering increases pleasure, and the more you give, the more pleasure you experience. When you are feeling bad about yourself, switching the focus from your own troubles, to assisting another person or helping an organization, puts things in perspective and lifts you out of a rut. Research suggests we are hard-wired to help others, with an innate reward system that gives us pleasure when we help others.
There are physical rewards as well, as volunteering can extend your life. Volunteers are more physically active, walk more, have better coping skills, interact with a larger social support group, and have lower blood pressure, less cardiac disease, better thinking skills and a more positive outlook on life.
Volunteering improves our sense of self-confidence because it puts us in a situation that is new for us, and rather than needing training or experience, often requires personal attributes such as a positive attitude, an open mind, compassion and a willingness to give new things a try.
Volunteering also provides variety in your work and life, which otherwise might be quite routine and relatively unchanging. It takes us outside our daily lives, provides new experiences and new friends.
Many organizations are based on the volunteer concept such as food banks, charity groups, service clubs, and church groups. There are Nova Scotia organizations to assist those who want to volunteer, information that would connect them to volunteering that would suit their experience, talents and wishes and the time they had to give, because volunteerism is about giving.
It is often at the heart of religious practices to care for others. Much of the work of every religion is carried out by volunteers, who do what they can to help, to make life better for others, to make a difference.
“Paying it forward” is an elegant concept. To help others because we ourselves have benefited from the kindness of others or were the recipients of a privileged position in life, is probably the best way to give thanks for the blessings we received.
Reading the Pictou Advocate each week has acquainted us with the many activities in the county that are carried out by volunteers, young and old. Historically, in the earliest days of Pictou there were stories of individuals, families and organizations reaching out to help others. It was also noted over the years that in charitable giving, Pictou County is always at the top of the Nova Scotia list. Frontier College, of which we have written before, was started by a dedicated volunteer, originally from Pictou, Arthur Fitzpatrick, who saw a need and filled it by organizing other volunteers. Perhaps the ultimate volunteer in Pictou during my youth was Roland Sherwood, who seemed to organize and contribute to every community activity.
When asked why they volunteer, most people will say they just want to help, but may mention the joy of socializing, networking, having new experiences, adding to their skills, and seeing the positive results of what we do. Volunteering can also advance your career as it shows you have wider skills than your formal training and education, attitudes towards others and the community that organizations and institutions admire. We should also point out that others notice volunteers and they themselves are inspired to volunteer.
Volunteers are an unrecognized social safety net in communities, and deserve more attention and recognition. It will be evident in these trying times, as the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the availability of volunteers with the limitations on movement, travel and concerns about safety for them and their families.
Volunteering shows us we can make a difference, no matter how small the effort might seem. As the anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Like the little bird, one must do what one can.