Introduction

Volunteering: Boon or Bane?

Volunteering: Boon or Bane?

2006. Holding butterfly nets in the Financial District. 5 a.m.:

A flutter between my cupped hands, and a slight beating of feathered wings. In my hands I hold a little bird.

It’s a good thing my friend is so persuasive, or I never would have tried it. Waking up at 4:30 a.m. to bike downtown and wander around the financial district donning butterfly nets is neither comfortable nor glamorous. But my friend, an avid environmentalist, heard about FLAP, an organization that retrieves injured birds after they’ve flown into Toronto skyscrapers (which occurs with scary frequency during migration seasons), and brings them to a wildlife sanctuary to nurse them back to health so they can be set free again. She willfully persuaded me to join her, and the shame of wandering around downtown with nets soon gave way to a strange and alien feeling, what I can now only describe as a kind of reverence: in my hands I was holding the tiniest of creatures, say a barn swallow or a kingbird, who performed physical feats that I could only dream of – flying from above the Arctic Circle down to Mexico and back again; navigating rain and snow, city lights and wind turbines. There was something intoxicating about holding and helping something that was so small and superhuman.

2005, before 2006:

“Volunteering: Hohoho. Get real! Pay me, then I’ll consider it. Volunteering = anathema.”

Today, I guess my line of thinking hasn’t changed all that much – except that now, rather than immediately guffaw at the idea of spending what very little free time I have working but not getting paid, I’ve come to see that volunteering can actually be worthwhile. My disparagement has now become: “I wish I could get paid doing something this interesting.”

FLAP was my first experience volunteering, and aside from the early mornings, it left a remarkably good taste in my mouth. I’ve since been more willing to try out different positions, from time to time surveying availablities on U of T’s Career Centre website. It’s not that I am any richer now, or that I have more free time than I used to. I am still stuck at a crappy part-time job which helps me pay my bills, and am busier than ever with school. The difference is that I’ve realized that volunteering is actually worthwhile, a fact that my previous incarnation refused to ackowledge. It gives me work experience, teaches me skills, can be fun, and provides someone (or some bird) a service. Through volunteering I’ve been able to formulate some concrete ideas on what I do and don’t like about various kinds of work.

A major misconception about volunteering is that it will take up all of your free time. At U of T I’ve discovered two ways to volunteer that require barely any extra work, and which have both proven beneficial:

a) Being a volunteer note-taker. I already go to class, I already take notes, and reviewing them shortly after I initially write them down has only helped raise my marks. All I do is type the notes up or scan them and upload them, or I bring them to the Accessibility Services, where they can do this for me.

b) Being a history class representative. I hate talking in front of groups, it’s my Achilles’ Heel par excellence. But once I started taking fourth year seminars, class sizes diminished to around 10-15 people, and last term when the prof asked for a volunteer (I still don’t know what came over me) I reluctantly raised my hand after everyone else refused to. I realized that being a class rep is actually one of the easiest tasks around: the hardest part is remembering to make announcements when they’re emailed to me by the HSA. There is one meeting per term that reps are expected to go to (I’m ashamed to say that forgot to go this time around [but I still didn’t get the sack!]), and I make the occasional class announcement. Simple and easy, and it kept me in touch not only with other history students, but also with the department at large.

-Mary