Tuesday, 29 April 2014

'Giving Back': Small Acts

It's not what your community can do for you, it's about what YOU can do for your community; that's how I was raised.  I don't know that these words were actually spoken out loud, but they were certainly implied and demonstrated in our home, in our community, on a daily basis.  There was a day when each one of our small neighbourhoods relied on the volunteerism of its people to remain viable.  While most of us may not remember, or perhaps not even been born, it was that willingness of our ancestors to contribute to their community that built and supported what we are now privileged to call 'home'.  In most instances, there was no monumental act of selflessness; instead there were a series of small acts, when compiled, became what we know today as progress.

Community Ladies Group - 1930
There were no doctors or anyone else even remotely trained in medicine.  I have no idea what prepared my grandmother to become the community midwife but she delivered a fair number of babies around the neighbourhood.  Nothing more than a collaborative desire to ensure their children had more education instigated the numerous small, now mostly defunct rural schools, reborn as community halls, and many of which today stand empty and neglected because most of us have forgotten the lessons learned from our elders, and do not dedicate the time or have the inclination to keep them going.  

Edwell Community Hockey Team - 1946
In better days, there was much to be done to keep the social fabric and spirit not only alive, but flourishing.  Community suppers were one such vehicle used to raise funds, where every family paid a small price to sit at a table with their neighbours, eating food prepared and donated by their women.  Each community offered something a little different in the way of entertainment to ensure the support of the broader area.  We had a skating rink, flooded annually by a few of our men; our skating shack was manned by a small number of our mothers who not only provided hot chocolate and hot dogs, but kept the fire stoked, laced up our skates, put on our mittens and wiped our snotty noses.  The community down the road hosted card parties and dances; the entertainment was whoever could play a tune, and nobody threw anything their way but accolades.  The food once again was provided by community women, and our small family fee (be we three or thirteen) went back into the coffers to support the next function, and carry out the necessary grounds and building maintenance.  For the most part, everyone understood our community existed simply because of small acts undertaken by all participants.  Granted, it was work, sometimes hard work, but it was also a time of great enjoyment and personal reward.  When I sit around and reminisce with my family and neighbours, these are the days we often recall with so much fondness.  There is a reason they are referred to as 'the good old days'. 

Somewhere along the line, we seem to have misplaced our sense of community.  Where it hasn't been lost altogether, it has certainly been watered down.  I came back to the community I grew up in some 12 years ago; to my knowledge the only thing our old community hall is used for is a venue for voting during elections and the odd rental.  There is a small handful of people in the district who volunteer as caretakers; the last I heard, they are tired and would like to hand off the responsibility to someone else.  Try as they might, no one seems willing to step up to the plate.  Oh, what a sad state of affairs.

Edwell School Picnic - 1959
On a larger scale, I am asked at least three times a year to volunteer my time for one non profit organization or another.  You know what?  I'm willing, to a point.  For the better part of adulthood I have volunteered.  Volunteering with a professional organization is usually not a hardship.  While there is certainly work to be done on your own time, much of it is paid for by your employer.  In my case, I was given time off to attend meetings and my transportation was paid for.  The work I put into the organization on my own has been repaid and then some because I have, over time, built up a wonderful resource in the many colleagues I have become acquainted with.  Community volunteerism is a different kettle of fish.  Compensation comes in the form of gratitude and appreciation sometimes.  When I moved to a new community, my volunteerism not only reacquainted me with old school friends, it introduced me to new neighbours, and friendships developed.  When I volunteered to teach English as a second language, I again came away with new friendships I would otherwise not have made.  My commitment to a local seniors organization literally fills my heart with happiness because I know I'm working toward something that is not only needed in our community but appreciated by our residents and their families. 

Here's what I want to know:  When did we become a society that believed that we are entitled to so many benefits but without having to make any effort?  When did we determine we were better off living disconnected from our community and in relative anonymity aka isolation?  Why is it that, unless we can see a direct advantage to ourselves, we often decide most causes are not worth a wee bit of effort?  We have more people living in our community than ever before and yet we can't seem to manage even a single annual function. 

Edwell School Halloween Party - 1958
I daresay, we are the losers in the broader scheme of things.  I go to foreign countries and not only embrace the kindness and generosity of the local people, I literally pine to become one with them, lamenting that this is the way it used to be here too.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that a community's literal existence is directly related to the level of participation of its members.  We know that each and every one of us fritters a certain amount of time away that could easily be channelled into something considerably more productive, time given that will not only make us feel better about ourselves but strengthen our relationships with our neighbours.  Nobody said we had to become anyone's best friend but chances are, in times of trouble, those are the people we are going to look to for help. 

A regional event for Cubs
Consider the times when something devastates our community, who is it that reaches out to us first?  It's our community; our friends and neighbours.  But it shouldn't have to be tragedy that brings us together and the fact that it so often is, is just sad, don't you think? I'm not the only one who feels this way.  Did you know, there is an organization called 'Small Acts Matter'?   It's slogan says it all:  Changing the World One Small Act at a Time.  SmallActs.Org is a website conceived to promote the philosophy that small acts can produce incredibly big outcomes.  It recognizes that small acts by a few can change a community; small acts by many can change the world.
What started this particular diatribe was being asked once again, this very morning, to consider volunteering time on a local board or, at the very least, encourage others to do so.  As I said, I already have volunteer commitments, however, it got me to thinking about all the opportunities I had growing up that were the sole outcome of the work of my parents and other likeminded community volunteers.  It got me to thinking that I put out very little effort but benefit greatly by the efforts of others.  It got me to thinking that, perhaps, I could do a little more.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to discover, this very same morning, that the City of Red Deer is thinking along those very lines.  This year's theme, “Small acts build great neighbourhoods”, in my mind, pretty much says it all and the City has developed a great program offering opportunities to collaborate with your friends and neighbours in hopes of building stronger, healthier socially responsible neighbourhoods.  If you are even remotely interested, check out the resources at the bottom of this article.
So here's my new commitment, to myself and to my community.  I want to pay it forward.  I want to give back.  I want to REconnect with my community.  How am I going to do it?  I'm still working out the details on few ideas.  It won't be anything grand, but it will be something. . . one small act, that's all we need to do folks. . . contribute one small act each . . . give up a wee bit of our time to the greater common interest . . . to our neighbours. . . to our community.

How about you?  What are you prepared to do for the community you call 'home'?  If you aren't sure where to start, here's a few ideas:
  1. Start small  There are plenty of opportunities for a one-time commitments
  2. Start local  We don't have to look very far to find organizations literally dying from lack of community support; 
  3. Support your own  Give back to a group that you are already involved with such as your local library or community hall;
  4. Follow your own interests  If you enjoy painting, perhaps volunteer at a local non-for-profit art gallery.  Love reading?  Volunteer in a reading program or a local book club.  Love animals?  Most local humane societies and organization are in dire need of volunteer support.  Are you a visitor?  There are some very lonely people in the world that would love nothing more to have you spend some time with them;
  5. Learn by volunteering   Opportunities that will offer some training.  If you want to know more about gardening, volunteer with a community garden.  Looking to learn to ride a horse?  Assisting with a local special needs program will certainly increase your exposure and open opportunities;
  6. Exploit your travel bug   Many professional organizations, schools and religious institutions sponsor opportunities for volunteering from a few weeks to several months ;
And if you are still wondering what's in it for you, I think you just might discover that giving of yourself is a surefire way to make YOU feel better about YOU. . . and what a small price to pay to feel good about yourself.