A pat on the back

Gerry Phelan
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People in uniform often command respect. Years ago, I had a summer job at a hospital, stocking shelves with supplies. Most days I’d go to work in jeans and a T-shirt. Eventually, a supervisor suggested I put on a white lab coat while carrying out my duties. Well, that chang­ed everything. I had patients and families address me as “doctor.” Even some of the other hospital staff figured I worked in the lab.

It was a good feeling to be recognized, to be respected. It’s how we look at ourselves. It is how we look at each other. And that brings me to my point. Chances are you, like me, have heard someone at a hospital, a school, a library or a charity event say these words: “I am only a volunteer.” One of the few statements that is worse is that “he or she is only a volunteer.”

This is volunteer week, and volunteers have been given cakes and cookies, plaques and awards, thank you cards and yes, accolades in newspaper columns. The tributes have been wonderful and deserving. It would be great if we gave them the respect and admiration year-round.

Valuable contribution

Imagine if every volunteer took a holiday from their duties tomorrow. We are told that in this province, 197,000 volunteers contribute 35 million unpaid hours to the economy. The Canadian Caregiver Coalition says four million unpaid caregivers contribute more than $5 billion of unpaid labour a year to the health-care system.

Volunteers are everywhere. It may be at the board table as directors of organizations; others are volunteering at canteens in hockey arenas and community halls. Some parents help kids, other than their own, with reading and writing at schools. People visit seniors at nursing homes, bring pets to be petted or sing songs to stir a twinkle or a tear in residents on St. Patrick’s Day.   

If kids or berry pickers go missing, volunteer searchers join the paid experts in the cold and dark woods. When fire strikes in most of our communities, volunteer firefighters risk life and limb to save our homes.

Most of us, given the opportunity, will offer our help and support, in the neighbourhood, a workplace project or for any good cause.

Helping patients

Bob wasn’t born in this province. His wife brought him here from Ontario, and it was close enough to his native Cape Breton that he settled right in. Bob is retired, but has more than enough to keep him busy. He ferries his wife back and forth to her job, makes sure the dog is walked and the cats are fed. And in between all that, he drives cancer patients to and from their appointments.

Bob knows all about that dreaded disease. He lost his first wife to cancer and he is a survivor of prostate cancer. At 77, he lends his driving abilities, his ear and his understanding to those going through treatment.  

I’ve read about a 98-year-old man who still volunteers at the Church Lads Brigade archive; I know pre-teens who help out at sporting fundraisers for their brothers and sisters, take part in Shave for the Brave and do other acts of kindness on a regular basis.  

We sometimes forget in our day-to-day lives to say the sincere thank you that we should to those who freely give a helping hand.

It’s nice to see the senior of the year or volunteer of the year award. A newspaper in Hawaii publishes thank you letters weekly. A campaign in Ontario, called Heroes in the Home, regularly recognizes family members, friends and volunteers who put in so much time and effort as caregivers and don’t always get recognition.

But it would be nice if we deliberately delivered the applause and the kind words on a more regular basis, not just once a year. How about every day? They are not “just volunteers.” They are what make this place tick. They are, as my dad says, the finest kind. And you can’t get better than that.

If you are a volunteer, pin this on your wall. Thanks for all you do.

Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster.

He can be reached at gerryp@bellaliant.net

Geographic location: Ontario, Cape Breton, Hawaii

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