I’ve always been struck by how the simplest of decisions or a seemingly insignificant event can set our lives in an entirely new direction. What might seem at the time like a chance encounter can turn out to be the turning point in our life. For me, one of those moments came while sitting in the Students Union Building at the University of Alberta some fifteen or so years ago.
At the time, I was into my second year at the University. It was fast becoming apparent to me that, while interesting, my coursework wasn’t likely to leave me with a great deal of practical skills at the end of four years. I happened to pick up a copy of The Gateway that day. In it was an advertisement looking for volunteers for The Support Network’s Distress Line – Edmonton’s 24-hour crisis line. I decided to apply. That would be the start of what has been an incredible journey.
I would spend the next seven years at The Support Network – first as a volunteer and later as a staff member. I would have the opportunity to talk to countless individuals dealing with issues of loss, abuse and at times, suicidal thought. I would also have the privilege of training hundreds of volunteers to answer calls from people in their times of need.
The skills that I learned as a volunteer at The Support Network are ones that I still use every day. Whether it is facilitating a community meeting, speaking to a group of potential donors or trying to get my children to clean up their rooms, it all comes down to the ability to communicate your ideas and to understand where someone else is coming from.
If asked to picture someone who was helped by United Way, I think most people might think of a homeless man or a single mother struggling to make ends meet. While United Way is certainly reaching out to the most vulnerable in the community, we are also building a stronger community through the thousands of volunteers utilized by agencies and initiatives across the Alberta Capital Region.
Nearly all of the agencies and programs supported by United Way rely on volunteers. These volunteers gain valuable skills, experience and an understanding of the issues being faced by many people in our community. I often run into former volunteers from The Support Network. Some are now doctors, some are lawyers and many are now working in the non-profit sector as their volunteering led them into a new career path.
Making the decision to volunteer has changed my life. Not only did I come away with skills and experiences that have made me the person that I am today, but more importantly, it’s where I met the woman who is now my wife and the mother of the two most wonderful children in the world.
That’s how volunteering changed my life. How has it changed yours?