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Who Wants to Volunteer

“Festivals in rural Saskatchewan communities say they're in need of volunteers, not just for festival events, but to sit on boards and committees as well,” was the opening sentence of a December 1, CBC article by Laura Sciarpelletti titled Festivals across Sask. struggling to attract volunteers since pandemic. (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/festivals-volunteers-pandemic-1.7045858) Festival organizers from across the province say interest in volunteering has dwindled significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, confirming what participants at a meeting held on November 29th in Wakaw had said. The meeting was organized by Wakaw’s Recreation and Community Development Manager, Dwane Burke stemming from conversations he had been party to surrounding community engagement, community development, community operations, and, basically, everything community. He had heard from several involved with different groups within the community, that they were struggling with participation and the meeting was an opportunity to bring representatives of different groups within Wakaw together to connect, share ideas, and identify a possible plan going forward.

In the last four years, people have been less willing to get out in their communities, Janie Fries, Moose Jaw Music Festival band co-ordinator said. The culture has changed a little bit, she said, and she points her finger in COVID’s direction. "I think one of the benefits that came out of COVID is that we as a society are much more aware of mental health. We've realized that if we overextend ourselves, it's not good for our mental health," she said.

The La Ronge Children's Festival, Moose Jaw Music Festival, and The Fort Winter Festival in Fort Qu'Appelle were all mentioned in the CBC article, but it is not just big events like those that are feeling the sting of fewer volunteers. Smaller entities like local service clubs, dance clubs, and even volunteer fire departments are all feeling the pinch. Shrinking volunteer numbers means that more is being asked of fewer people. Organizers and volunteers need help to continue offering the services they provide so they too, can better balance their own mental health.

The voices around the table Wednesday evening all agreed that they needed to try to make the community at large more aware of the need for more people to get involved and lend a hand. As well perhaps there needs to be a redefining of the image of volunteering. Growing up in a ‘volunteering’ culture like Saskatchewan’s, many people perhaps still envision huge commitments of time to the designated cause like what was expected and made by generations previous, but times change and so too, perhaps, must volunteerism. The reality for most families now is that both partners work outside of the home, whereas thirty or forty years ago, most often there was still one parent at home to take on volunteer work. Another factor to consider is that people do not necessarily live and work in the same community any longer and that the commute time also cuts into the amount of time people have and are willing to give to volunteer. Society changes and along with that values and priorities change. Recognizing those impacts alone does not solve the problem.

All those groups sitting around the table last Wednesday, have a common goal and that is creating and sustaining a vibrant, healthy community. The common challenge is how to do that in this new post-pandemic culture. There are several new families in Wakaw and Eilish McAnally from Connecting Grids Regional Immigration Partnership, and Julia and Jeanine who represented Newcomer Services Humboldt spoke to some of the hurdles their organizations identify that may keep newcomers from stepping into those empty volunteer seats. Whether newcomers to a community are just new to the area, new to the province, or new to the country, they all need to experience a sense of belonging to a place and to the other people who share that place and space with them. Making newcomers feel like they belong requires a "reaching out" from the community. Often people who have lived in a place for a long time unconsciously overlook the fact that newcomers do not know everyone in their new community or who actually belongs to a certain group. For example, advice to contact a Legion member or a Lions member for more information is not helpful to someone who does not know who those members are, nor how to contact them.

As the meeting wound to a close, there were a few agreed-upon facts. As a collective the groups need to know what is wanted for themselves and what is wanted from others, what is the first step, what is the next step, etc. Groups need to see who amongst them would be interested in collaborating on something to bring the community together to raise awareness of all the different things that are going on in Wakaw and the opportunities to become involved whether that be in a broad or limited way.

The fact that organizations big and small are all coping with the same struggles in finding volunteers is somewhat reassuring because it means that it is not something that one singular group is doing wrong. At the same time, however, that means all groups need to evaluate how they operate and how they can reinvent themselves.

Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wakaw Recorder