I’ve lived in New Westminster for 20 years this coming year. (whoa, dude). I moved here because I wanted to be closer to my then-boyfriend who lived even further east, and because I didn’t want to cross a bridge or lose access to the SkyTrain.
Although I had volunteered here and there when opportunities landed in my lap, I didn’t start getting heavily involved with my community in earnest until about the last six years or so. It is not a coincidence that my child was born at roughly the same time.
There’s practical reasons: I was on mat leave and was spending more time in my community (making a pretty compelling case for working in the same community that you live) and actually seeing and experiencing what was going on during the day. I was having my change begged for by homeless people, having to navigate cluttered sidewalks with too many signs, noting what businesses were family friendly and which ones obviously didn’t want my dollars. I was also experiencing all the parks, public spaces, and public art that tax dollars fund.
There are environmental reasons: my job as the farmers market manager immersed me pretty deeply in the community and helped me connect with a pretty large diverse group.
There are also personal personal reasons: I want my child to grow up in a community where he feels supported, and has opportunities for education, recreation, and planning for his future. I want to cultivate an ideal world for him – a legacy.
So I started getting involved. At first it was as a commentator on Tenth to the Fraser, focused on connecting people and highlighting local businesses and activities, but then I began volunteering, fundraising, and generally being involved in a lot of things away from my computer. I had a hard time saying no (and still struggle with this.)
I just finished volunteering for two successful municipal election candidates (Patrick Johnstone is a first term councillor, and Jonathan Cote is our new mayor). Right now the groups and initiatives I’m involved with include:
- Royal City Farmers Market, as a director (check out the new website we just launched!) because I think protecting local food is critical to the future
- KidSport New West, as the treasurer/registrar because I know the value of sports in a child’s life
- My son’s school PAC, as the secretary because I hope he enjoys school as much as I did
- The Intelligent City Advisory Committee for the City of New Westminster because I believe this is of value for me professionally, plus I’m interested in the digital inclusion components of this awesome initiative
- The Community Grants Committee for the City of New Westminster because I want to contribute to organizations accessing funds to do great work in the community.
Currently, I dedicate about five hours a week of my life to doing things that help in my community. I get asked a lot how I manage to do it all, so here are four practical pieces of advice I’m sharing:
1) None of this would happen without the support of my family – most meetings are at night, and I’m thankful for a spouse who is comfortable with me going out to meetings. If this isn’t something you have at home, volunteer opportunities you can do from home on your own schedule do exist – they just need a bit of hunting to find. Try Charity Village, Community Volunteer Connections, or simply tell everyone you know that you’re looking for an opportunity.
2) Evaluate why you want to contribute. Is this for social reasons? Do you want to leave a legacy? Do you want to make things better right now? By examining your motivation, you can find the right kinds of opportunities and determine your level of commitment. It’s okay to say you want to volunteer simply to meet people – connecting with other community members is a valuable and legitimate reason for wanting to volunteer. Just be honest.
3) Carve actual, concrete time out of your schedule to contribute to the community. I believe this provides a framework and context to ensure my reasons for wanting to contribute are met. It also gives me specific times I can contribute without worrying about all the other stuff on my to-do list. There’s another crucial half to this point – learning to say ‘no’ if the opportunity to contribute doesn’t fit in your schedule or your reasons.
4) Knowing when it’s time to move on. I’ve been involved in a few groups and organizations where I felt stuck. It’s hard, but acknowledging that it’s not meeting your needs anymore is win-win for everyone. All organizations need energetic contributors and fresh ideas and fresh hands to work well. That’s not to say volunteering isn’t sometimes hard – but if there is no reward then it’s time to reevaluate. Be polite, honest, and brief when it comes time to let them know and actually let them know – don’t just disappear. If you want, offer to help find a replacement, but don’t make that a contingency to you breaking away.
Volunteering and being involved in my community has given me a level of satisfaction I didn’t think possible, and it’s partly what keeps Ross and I here in this town even if there are moderate financial rewards to be had if we were to leave. Creating connections isn’t just about having a big rolodex of names, it’s about making your heart and your home healthy and happy.