How Squamish’s volunteers are building its community, one sector at a time

The benefits of volunteerism are just as wide-ranging as the opportunities to get involved

It’s difficult to deny that life is good here in Squamish.

From world-class trails, team sports leagues and a wide range of recreation opportunities — not to mention a well-trained team of search and rescue volunteers ready to save you when a day of recreating goes awry — to good schools and a solid roster of social services available to lean on when the hard times hit, quality of life in the Sea to Sky is high.

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But those amenities didn’t just pop up out of thin air. They’re often the product of countless hours volunteered by residents in an effort to make their community the best it can be.

“The importance of volunteering as I see it is building capacity for organizations that otherwise could not deliver what they deliver for our communities,” said Diana Gunstone, volunteer and community programs co-ordinator at Whistler Olympic Park and a member of the recently-resurrected Squamish Non-profit Network.

“Whether that’s extra hands sorting goods at Pearl’s for the (Howe Sound) Women’s Centre… or helping with the Food Bank, helping coach our children with the Squamish Youth Soccer Association or the Squamish Minor Hockey Association; volunteers are building our trails which brings economic opportunity as well to our community.

“There’s so many sectors that build our community through volunteerism, from environment to education to sport; arts and culture and of course social services.”

The Squamish Non-profit Network’s email list alone includes 85 participants within the community, she added.

In Squamish, volunteer opportunities within these sectors can range from the more organized side of the spectrum — like coaching, working with an environmental group or on a school’s Parent Advisory Council — to less formal volunteer efforts, such as driving an elderly neighbour to do groceries and errands, or picking up garbage along Squamish’s shoreline.

“There’s volunteers who love what they do. Whether it’s digging out trails in the woods or teaching children new skills, it’s often about giving back through doing things that you most enjoy,” Gunstone, whose personal volunteer experience includes working with the Sea to Sky Nordics ski club, and with Whistler Olympic Park’s school program, continued.

While it’s clear volunteering has an enormous impact on the community, it also offers several benefits to those who are donating their time and skills.

“Through volunteering, I see people connecting to the community; I see people learning, I see people being mentored, I see people retraining for new opportunities and then I see people being hired… often it can be a step toward employment, or it can just be a step toward a personal need to participate and to give back,” Gunstone said.

The benefits aren’t just anecdotal, either: As detailed in a 2018 report titled, ‘The Value of Volunteering in Canada’ — carried out by the Conference Board of Canada and presented to Volunteer Canada — charitable activities can improve the life satisfaction of volunteers and might even improve their health.

Other research suggests that volunteers, as Gunstone noted, often gain many business-relevant skills that can lead to improved work-related outcomes, too.

The same report found that about 44 per cent of Canadians volunteer an average of 156 hours a year and estimates that these volunteers added over two billion hours to Canada’s work effort in 2017. This contribution was valued at $55.9 billion in 2017 — equivalent to 2.6 per cent of Canada’s GDP.

So what’s the demographic of these volunteers? It’s just as wide-ranging as the sectors they contribute to, Gunstone said. “I’ve seen young people engage and connecting, I’ve seen people who have moved into the community who are looking to meet new people, and then there’s people who have retired and just have more time on their hands and they’re ready to share that with other people.”

The fact that Squamish enjoys such a strong volunteer presence is striking, considering the community’s large population of commuters and the time constraints they struggle with.

“I’ve heard that from many who commute to work that they would love to volunteer but they spend three hours just getting to and from work, so it’s tricky. It is challenging for our community, given the amount (of people who) do commute north or south,” Gunstone said. “There’s only so many hours in the day so it’s not easy for everybody … those are some of the limitations of living in a community like this.”

However, “We really do have a wonderful community here in Squamish, full of generous hearts and helping hands, and as I speak with volunteers, we each contribute for many reasons,” she added in a follow-up email, naming a passion for community, an event, a sport or endeavour; an opportunity to meet and connect with new people; an opportunity to learn and develop new skills or interests and a opportunity to help our neighbours or others in need as a few of those reasons.

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