When retiree Gaye Long hops on her bike to make her Vancouver deliveries, she knows that as a Meals on Wheels volunteer, she is bringing people — many of them housebound seniors — more than just something to eat.
"Some of these people, you are the only face they see for days, the only voice they hear," said Long, who has been with the charity for six years.
Long also says she, or someone she loves, might depend on Meals on Wheels one day, and it is important to her to keep it afloat.
Maintaining the service is a legitimate concern based on statistics shared by Volunteer Canada.
According to president and CEO Megan Conway, up to 65 per cent of organizations in the country are struggling with a shortage of volunteers, and up to 35 per cent of those that are have had to reduce services as a result.
"They are seeing what they are referring to as a crisis in volunteering right now," said Conway, whose numbers are based on November 2022 Statistics Canada data.
Prior to the pandemic, the national statistics office reported Canadians born before 1945 dedicated the most hours to volunteering of any demographic.
But COVID-19 may be changing that.
Conway cited research conducted by B.C.-based Volunteer Victoria that found health and safety risks are a primary reason why some seniors are no longer volunteering to the degree they once did.
"Priorities shifted during the pandemic," said Conway.
And the post-COVID economic situation is also not helping, with Conway pointing out the cost of gas, child care, and criminal record checks can be prohibitive for some people who would otherwise step up.
WATCH | Organizations hampered by lack of volunteers:
These factors played into why, after more than 50 years, Meals On Wheels shut down its program in South Surrey and White Rock, B.C., in October 2022.
Kevin Yip, a spokesperson for Care B.C., which oversees the now three Meals On Wheels programs in Metro Vancouver, says volunteers are needed for the remaining routes.
"They are at the core of our program," said Yip. "We could not operate our program without our volunteers."
A lack of volunteers is exactly why 1,200 British Columbia youth who are eager to join Girl Guides of Canada have been stuck on a wait list for months.
Diamond Isinger, the B.C. provincial commissioner for the Girl Guides of Canada, says a record number of young people registered for Girl Guides in the fall, but there are not enough adults coming forward to accommodate that many kids.
Isinger leads a Vancouver group and says the pandemic created a pent-up demand for young people seeking social connections, but the organization can't keep up unless more volunteers come forward.
She says across the country, the pattern is the same.
"We offer training, mentorship and support, but we need people with the time and passion to give."
Big Brothers of Greater Vancouver also has kids with no adult to connect them to and says it will no longer accept children to its mentorship program in Surrey, B.C., due to a shortage of volunteers.
Thirty kids in Surrey have been approved for the program but are still waiting to be paired with a mentor, the organization says, and the average wait time for a match is two years.
"Without volunteers, we cannot reach children," said Norman Galimski, marketing and communications co-ordinator with Big Brothers of Greater Vancouver.
Conway says Volunteer Canada was identified in a 2019 Senate report to lead the development of a national strategy around volunteering — something she said is needed "to pull together solutions both at a community level and at a demographic level."
"I think we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink how we, as a country, re-imagine volunteering."