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Volunteers fill critical roles: Part 3 in a six-part series on volunteerism


Volunteer James Parham helps David Burtch into Helping Hands’ wheelchair-accessible van. Burtch said the transportation service offered by the community agency is a godsend.

Volunteer James Parham helps David Burtch into Helping Hands’ wheelchair-accessible van. Burtch said the transportation service offered by the community agency is a godsend. DAVE DAWSON - THE PACKET & TIMES

Editor’s Note: National Volunteer Week is April 6 to 12. In honour of the countless people in Orillia who volunteer, The Packet & Times is shining the spotlight on the selfless over the coming days as part of a six-part series on volunteerism. This is Part 3.


Volunteers are the lifeblood of local service clubs and non-profit agencies. They typically toil out of the limelight, behind the scenes, but many also fill critical frontline roles and hold key boardroom positions. They are the heart and soul of the organizations that transform a city into a caring community.

Peer behind the windows of The Sharing Place food bank and you’ll understand. On a recent Monday, during a busy three-hour flurry of activity, more than 70 people flooded the food bank to obtain some sustenance.

“Most people don’t understand the depth of poverty that exists in Orillia,” said Christine Hager, the executive director of The Sharing Place. “The need is constant. It’s heartbreaking.”

But that doesn’t mean the West Street agency is a depressing destination. In fact, longtime volunteer Jane Ball said the hard-working volunteers who fill the food bank’s myriad of roles relish the opportunity to help their fellow men and women.

“This is not a sad place,” Ball said with a smile. “There is a fabulous volunteer team here with a vast range of educational levels, skill sets and talents. The egos are left at the door and we enjoy being here. When the clients come, it’s all business.”

Ball said each volunteer — there are more than 60 who help out in a hands-on manner and another 20 who sit on boards and committees — ensures clients are treated professionally.

“We treat them with respect and kindness and they appreciate that,” said Ball, who sang the praises of the food bank’s unsung heroes: the unselfish pair who helped fill 600 Christmas hampers, the tireless volunteers who pack more than 700 lunch bags monthly for school-aged children and the ones who brave the elements to organize supplies in the cold storage — all with little fanfare. “I just really admire what they do.”

Hager agrees. She said without volunteers, many people would go hungry.

“Volunteers are absolutely critical. We could not do any of this without volunteers,” she said. “They’re here before the clients come in, stocking shelves, filling orders … They’re here to do intake, to talk to clients, who are often terrified. Each day, I am humbled by the people who come here to help us.”

James Maxwell shares that sentiment. He is constantly impressed by the volunteers who help drive Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orillia.

“The fact is we wouldn’t be here and be able to do what we do without volunteers,” Maxwell said. “We don’t get any government support. We are a grassroots, community-supported organization.”

The backbone of the agency is matching youngsters with older mentors, being a big brother or a big sister to someone who may not come from a strong family background.

“This is our traditional 1:1 relationship between an adult and a child,” Maxwell said. (See related story on Page C1). “Right now, we have 29 ongoing matches. It’s the program that provides the highest impact and where we also have the highest need. Right now, we have 32 children on a waiting list, some of whom have been waiting for three or four years.”

He said volunteer big brothers and big sisters are screened and must commit to the program for at least a year.

“It’s an opportunity to expand the borders of a kid beyond their four walls,” Maxwell said. “It’s about spending time with that child, introducing them to a different reality. It’s not about fixing their problems but introducing an alternate trajectory to their life’s path.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters also offers other mentoring opportunities; the agency has an in-school mentoring program and a group mentoring program, both of which offer good introductions to becoming a big brother or big sister, Maxwell said.

“Either way, the real legacy of this organization and our volunteers is what we invest into the minds and hearts of these kids,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to positively influence a young child.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Helping Hands in Orillia aims to support local seniors. The agency helps seniors live independently by assisting with homemaking, providing meals on wheels, transportation, friendly visiting, telephone assurance and also organizes various social programs.

“We rely heavily on volunteers,” said Victoria Cescon, the agency’s volunteer co-ordinator, who noted two-thirds of the agency’s ‘workforce’ is composed of volunteers. “We have about 150 volunteers who help our staff assist our seniors.”

For David Burtch, those volunteers are like a breath of fresh air in his life. He is thankful for Helping Hands volunteers and the transportation services they provide.

“They give me legs to walk,” said Burtch, who has mobility issues and requires a walker or wheelchair to get around. “They help me to their vehicle, take me where I need to go and help me get out — all with a smile on their face. It means a lot to be able to depend on them.”

Cescon said Helping Hands is in dire need of volunteer drivers and people with administrative skills to help out in the Memorial Avenue office.

“Our main registration desk is staffed by volunteers, as is our transportation booking desk,” Cescon said. “Volunteers also help with billing … We send out 800 bills each month. They also help with various committees and serve on our board. They are absolutely vital to what we do.”

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