Right here, right at the beginning, this is the part of the guide where I beseech you to reach into your inner self and find that true heart of goodness that sits at your very core, your soul, right next to your spleen, I think, and to connect that true heart of goodness to those around you, the wider community, making the community a better place, and with the added benefit of bringing spiritual fulfillment to your own life. There are probably a bunch of Buddhist terms to explain the whole process, and I'd use them, if I knew what they were. Really, I would.
I mean, you no doubt have your reasons for finding something worthwhile to do. Maybe you truly are one of those people who just wants to do good by somebody. Maybe you want to build your resume or you've got some career networking angle. Maybe you want to find a date. Maybe you're just bored and want to get out of the house. Like the kids say: it's all good. Fact is, we'd just annoy each other if we started talking about it.
So let's cut to the chase, eh? There are a bunch of people out there who don't need this guide---they go to mysterious meetings on Sunday mornings, have learned the secret handshakes and are regularly contacted via phone trees and internet listserves to go assist some horribly diseased widow across town who needs help feeding her 37 kids. Good on them. This guide ain't for them.
This guide is for you slackers and semi-slackers---I use the term with respect, having spent more than a little time propped up at the west end of the bar---who vaguely feel you ought to do something worthwhile, or at least interesting, or to find some way you can get plugged into the community, but you aren't quite sure exactly how that might happen and you've never gotten around to researching it yourselves.
So, I've got a few suggestions. It's not a big deal---no conversions required, and I'm aware that you might guard your time. Entire sections of what follows may not interest you, and that's cool too. And this list is by no means complete---there are lots of organizations and opportunities out there I've overlooked, forgotten about or have been unable to connect with for one reason or another. But, come on, there's got to be something here you can do.
Let's start easy. You can pony up a few hours of your time, once, and be done with it, by hooking up with one of the many groups sponsoring festivals in Halifax. Each needs the full spectrum of set-up people, program sellers, ushers, concessions workers, gofers, drivers, etc.
The Atlantic Film Festival (420-4799) needs up to 300 people at a shot for four annual festivals, but also needs people to work in the office throughout the year, like even right now.
Besides the usual throng of volunteers, the Halifax International Busker Festival (in August, buskers.ca will be updated soon) has a need for people with baby-sitting certificates or who have had background checks to work the new children's area during 10am-2pm matinees.
Go North! (Eryn Foster, 425-6412), the north end arts festival scheduled this year for September 12, needs people this year to help out with planning and organizing the festival. That means going to meetings, helping out with fundraising and doing outreach. They'll also need people to poster, and on the day of the festival, people with specific knowledge of the north end arts scene, tour guides, etc.
Halifax Pop Explosion (this year, October 10-14, firstname.lastname@example.org) needs upwards of 150 volunteers for postering, stuffing bags, taking tix, etc., but specially prized are "technical people"---if you know how to plug in a mic, you're hot property---and, for ferrying musicians back and forth from the airport in rent-a-vans, people over 25 and with a clean driving record.
You could get involved with the more permanent, year-round cultural organizations. The time commitment is generally longer-term and on a more regular basis than one-shot festivals, but organizations will vary in how much they ask of you. If it's not clear, call and ask—nobody wants to burn you out.
Pier 21 (Joanna Veale, 425-7770, ext. 237), for example, uses volunteers as labourers, tour guides, ticket sellers and in the gift shop. If you're up to the task, they also need people to work in their research centre and to conduct oral history interviews. Right now there's a specific need for someone with graphic design skills. Most people commit about three hours a week, but some do more.
Eyelevel Gallery on Gottingen (Eryn Foster, 425-6412) needs people to paint and clean the space between shows, as well as to gallery sit and to work at receptions and openings. There's also on-going committee work for programming and fundraising.
Symphony Nova Scotia (421-1300) needs on-call volunteers for concerts. Right now they badly need volunteer receptionists---people with basic computer skills who can commit to one morning or afternoon per week.
Shakespeare by the Sea (422-0295) will operate this year from July 1 through September 6. They need people to work the front of the house as greeters, selling tickets and working the concession stand. You can commit to as little as a single night, although some work right through the summer.
One of the more exciting volunteer opportunities available in Halifax is to get a show at community radio station CKDU (494-6479). Although based on the Dal campus, the station is open to anyone. The way it works is you sign up for five training sessions to learn how to use the equipment, and prove your commitment by doing at least five hours of behind-the-scenes work---filing CDs, writing PSAs, that sort of thing. After you're trained, you can get on air by filling in a few spots. Then, you put together a 10-minute demo tape and if it's approved by station management you end up with your own weekly show. There's plenty of other off-air work that needs doing, too.
Activism & government
The world just ain't right, ya know? But this is one of those "interesting" times the Chinese supposedly curse each other with, and with the economy in flux, climate change policy coming to a head and the Americans uncharacteristically finding some semblance of political sense, an extra nudge here or there might make an enormous difference. Worth a try, anyway.
Of course, Halifax's enviro heart is found at the Ecology Action Centre (Charlene Boyce-Young, 442-0198), and there are so many different ways to volunteer there it'd take a phone book to list them all---they range from office and phone work to helping with one-shot events to more hands-on committee work devoted to specific environmental issues, helping to develop policy. There's an immediate need for handymen and women, and people to help with construction issues related to the EAC's new Fern Lane home. I've been around EAC enough to know that if you have any environmental interest whatsoever, there's a place for you there.
In addition to the usual gamut of office help, fundraising, etc., the Nova Scotia Nature Trust (425-5263) has a neat little volunteer opening for rare plant monitors. You'll be asked to visit the site of a threatened plant species (mostly in southwestern Nova Scotia) during the flowering season between July and September and record data on the plants and its habitat. No experience is necessary---the Trust will train you. At least one annual visit is required, but multiple visits are encouraged. Sounds like a good excuse to get out of town.
On the war and peace front, the Halifax Peace Coalition (Chris Maxwell, 496-9209) needs people for postering, phone calling, etc. They're always looking for people with expertise on some aspect of geopolitical conflict to write commentaries and speak at events. Right now, they need someone with some website design skills. And let's not overlook the most basic need: become a body at a demonstration, another citizen whose very presence speaks against militarism---and for peace.
If you're the entrepreneurial sort, there's an opportunity to put your stamp on the "newly restarting" Halifax chapter of the Council for Canadians (Angela Giles, 422-7811). Like the national organization, the local folks will be concentrating on public policy issues and research, but it's wide open in terms of which issues in particular get attention. Got an issue? Here's an excellent opportunity to get people interested.
A step further in the activism direction is the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group (NSPIRG, contact Angela or Asa, 494-6662). The organization, primarily funded through Dal student fees but open to the broader community, proudly "seeks social and environmental justice through radical social change" and has several campaigns to that end: save Lincolnville, Resist Atlantica, rooting out racism in schools. They are also organizing a media cooperative.
Or, if in-your-face activism is more your style, consider the Halifax Coalition Against Poverty (444-5060). HCAP is fearless, and takes the fight right to the cause of the problem: They've picketed a provincial minister's house in the early morning to make a point about social housing funding, have sat in government offices to draw attention to adverse changes in emergency shelter policies and regularly, directly confront landlords for violating housing laws.
You might also give consideration to becoming part of government itself. The people who sign up for the planning commissions and municipal boards are the unsung heroes of local government---they often bring fresh ideas and new perspectives to a venue that isn't usually conducive to either. It takes a special kind of person to navigate through the bureaucracy; it requires immense patience, a tolerance for bullshit and an almost perverse attention to detail. Still, the rewards come by way of a community that's slightly better than the one without you---I recommend it.
HRM has volunteer members on more than 50 boards and commissions---ranging from the Bikeways Advisory Committee to several watershed advisory committees to the Natal Day Steering Committee to transit and urban design advisory committees (see halifax.ca/boardscom for contact info and details of what's needed). Volunteers are asked to fill out a short form detailing their experience and interests, and regional council typically makes appointments in November, although vacancies that come up through the year are filled by reviewing new applications.
For the ultimate in meta-bureaucratic volunteerism, the provincial government has nine "non-partisan advisory committees" that assess candidates who have applied to become members of "ajudicative boards." And what are ajudicative boards? Glad you asked. According to the provincial website (gov.ns.ca/exec_council/AdvisoryCommittees), adjudicative boards are "agencies, boards, and commissions ('ABCs') with quasi-judicial functions; these boards take evidence, make findings of fact and law, and make decisions affecting a person's liberty, security or legal rights." In other words, you know that bastard with the clipboard and attitude on the other side of the bulletproof glass? You get to appoint the people who can overrule his petty, bureaucratic ass. The advisory committees include 18 "lay" (sic) people, and your first test for becoming a member of such an inside-baseball committee is to figure out how to apply. I'm an experienced journalist with computer resources and provincial contacts at my disposal, and I couldn't figure it out, so if you can master the challenge you deserve the appointment.
Kids & Sports
You can always work with kids. They can be fun, or at least amusing, and they haven't yet learned that we adults are just as clueless as they are, so you get to play the role of the wise elder. More pragmatically, these little people will one day grow up and either mug you in the Common or operate on you in the emergency room, so it's a worthy investment of time to try to steer them in the more responsible direction.
Probably what kids need most in their lives is simply people who aren't crazy. If you fit the description, you might consider becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister (466-5437). The organization will match you with a youngster, age seven through teenager, give you a bit of training and the two of you will then embark on a friendship and take that wherever it goes. This can be a stress-free relationship, basically a once-a-week or every-other-week meeting, and you go hang out in parks or the movies, whatever. Basically, you're a needed adult presence in a kid's life---a mentor and model.
The Learning Disabilities Association of Nova Scotia (Megan MacLeod, 423-2850) needs literacy instructors for kids who are one or two years behind on their reading and writing skills. What I really like about this org is they are very specific about what they need from volunteers: one hour two nights a week for 10 weeks, at either a south end or Dartmouth location. The work consists of one-on-one instruction guided through a "research based program" that will be explained to you when you join up. The spring session starts in April.
There are dozens of provincial sporting organizations listed on the Sport Nova Scotia website (sportnovascotia.ca, "who we are"), which in turn will list hundreds of local clubs---they range from the predictable hockey and swimming clubs to the Metro Minor Lacrosse League and the Halifax Hustlers Orienteering Club.
These clubs typically consist of parents and people who grew up in the sport, maybe right there with the club. But there is an enormous amount of work that goes into these operations, and almost all of it is volunteer work---you'd be most welcome if you could lend a hand, even if---especially if---your own spawn isn't out there on the field or ice.
The work ranges from officiating to hauling buckets to water the ice to driving to meets to whatever. Time commitments will vary with seasons and needs of the particular club. Be warned that clubs often are stressed for time and, I've discovered, don't immediately return phone calls. But that's evidence of their great need for your help.
This is the catch-all category for the old-fashioned service groups, the bread-and-butter charities that make society decent. Without them, we'd be a soulless black hole of a place, like Afghanistan or the United States. They fill in the gaps in the safety net and remind us of our responsibilities to our fellow humans.
Top of the list in these hard times is Feed Nova Scotia (457-1900), the food bank for the province. The political and economic issues surrounding hunger are solvable, and it's a sad commentary on our society that they're not being addressed. But in the meantime, we've got to take care of the people in need, and there are dozens of places for people to help out. Feed Nova Scotia sent me a long list of volunteer positions, ranging from warehouse workers to drivers to events coordinators to office help. Training is provided, and there's no minimum time commitment, except for HELPLINE workers, who work the phones connecting hungry people to the organization; these volunteers are asked to commit to at least four hours a week for six months.
The Heart & Stroke Foundation (423-7530, ext. 304, Megan Foster) is conducting its annual Heart Month fundraising drive in February. This is easy work, a total time commitment of two to four hours for the entire month. Simply call and say you want to help, and they'll assign you a door-knocking route in your neighbourhood and send you the materials.
The Metropolitan Immigrant Settlement Association (422-2937, ext. 299) always needs volunteer literacy tutors for recent immigrants who need help with speaking, reading or writing English. The immigrants have a range of ability, from "fresh off the boat" to simply polishing up some skills before entering college. But this is easy on volunteers---you'll go through a short training session, and then be matched with an immigrant depending upon what you're comfortable with. From there, you'll generally work an hour or two a week one-one-one for a few months.
A less publicized volunteer opportunity rests with VoicePrint (444-7538), an organization that provides "accessible secondary audio" on CBC's Newsworld, via satellite and on a website. In short, your voice will be recorded for the tens of thousands of people across Canada who for one reason or another---they're blind, have a physical disability or are illiterate---can't watch television news or read the newspaper. No special skills are required and they'll train you to use the equipment, but it helps if you have a good speaking voice, above average reading ability and an interest in news and current affairs. You're asked to commit to one to four two-hour sessions per month; you'll come and produce a 30-minute newscast, which will be completely in your hands---from selecting the article, being the voice and doing editing and post-production.
As I've noted, this is a scattershot list, far from complete. There are all sorts of good work being done by all sorts of good organizations, and if they send me their information (email@example.com) I'd be most happy to add it to an ever-growing volunteer list on The Coast website.
But it's a start. Enough to get the rest of you slackers out the door.