"Do you know of any events you'd recommend volunteering at this holiday season?"
It was signed "Mrs. Smyth."
Was it a recent widow, looking to fill an aching void during what, for some, is the saddest season of the year? Perhaps an empty nester with too much time and too little human contact?
Well, as it turns out, it was from Kelsey Smyth, 15, daughter of Mrs. Smyth. And she didn't know why she wanted to volunteer, just that she knew she wanted to help, somehow.
Dennis Dyck, executive director of Volunteer Manitoba, says it doesn't really matter why people want to volunteer.
"There are no wrong reasons."
He says people used to give students a bad rap, because they would want to volunteer in an area related to their field of study. "But that is not a bad thing."
"It's a win-win situation." They are still helping others, along with helping themselves.
It's for a similar reason that whole families will volunteer together, Dyck says.
"Kids are so busy with after-school activities already. Parents will think, rather than sitting as a volunteer board member during the evening, why not volunteer somewhere as a family?" That way, they get to hang out with their kids and do some good at the same time.
It's OK to be selfish when you are being unselfish.
So, back to Kelsey. Where does she, or any other beginning volunteer, begin?
The big three places to volunteer during the holiday season are Winnipeg Harvest, the Christmas Cheer Board and Siloam Mission.
Here is a brief look at what you can expect at each place:
Christmas Cheer Board:
"Christmas should happen to everyone." The board started in 1919 to provide Christmas Hampers and toys for the widows and orphans of the soldiers lost during the First World War. Now it attempts to coordinate all Christmas giving to needy families in Winnipeg.
Phone (Nov. 1-Dec. 31): 989-5680. Web: christmascheerboard.ca
What you could be doing:
Receiving and sorting toys, packing hampers, working the phones, filing, working the board's computers. "We get 20,000-25,000 applications for Christmas hampers. Somebody has to coordinate all that paperwork," executive director Kai Madsen says, adding he's delighted Kelsey is interested in volunteering.
"We depend hugely on school kids. And it gives them an opportunity to see... what the world is really all about."
Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Someone will get back to you. (There's another volunteer possibility -- contacting potential volunteers.) There is no orientation, Madsen says, because there is such a good core of regular volunteers to take newbies under their wings.
Between four and five thousand volunteers pitch in during November and December. Last year the board delivered 18,662 hampers.
"Winnipeg Harvest is a non-profit, community-based organization. We collect and share surplus food with people who are hungry."
Gary McGhee, volunteer services co-ordinator. Phone: 982-3663. Web: winnipegharvest.org
What you could be doing:
Everything from putting food on shelves as it comes in to filling orders that meet the needs of specific families to sorting and wrapping Christmas gifts for various ages. And, for people with proven organizational skills, a co-ordinator and assistant co-ordinator are needed for Harvest's Christmas hamper program. We're talking more than 700 hampers that have to be individually filled and delivered. There are CEOs who have less responsibility than that.
All volunteers are interviewed first. Harvest holds orientations every second Tuesday and the last Friday of the month. The next one is Dec. 9. You can also individually arrange an orientation on Saturdays. If you are under age 16, you have to volunteer with an adult: anyone over age 18 whom your parents deem responsible.
Last year, 2,854 people donated 285,000 volunteer hours.
"A connecting point between the compassionate and Winnipeg's less fortunate, Siloam Mission is a Christian humanitarian agency offering programs and services at no charge to those experiencing homelessness."
Stefanie Laing, director of volunteer services. Phone 956-4344. Web: siloam.ca
What you could be doing:
We usually see photos of volunteers dishing out meals this time of year, and preparing and serving meals is a big need at the mission. But you could also volunteer to give haircuts, or sort clothing. Musicians volunteer to entertain. Dentists volunteer to pull teeth. Others write thank-you letters to donors. The sky is the limit.
Fill out an online application on their website. Then you will be invited to an orientation. You can also contact Laing for a one-on-one orientation. If you are under age 17, you must volunteer with an adult.
Last month, 1,500 volunteers gave of their time -- but several of those were as groups, so the individual number would be much higher.
The Volunteer Centre operates a website listing volunteer opportunities especially for youth (which is anyone under 30, Dyck says. Sweet). Find it at myvop.ca. There is also a site geared to everyone else. Organizations post specific needs on these websites.
But if you still don't know what you are looking for, you can make an appointment to meet someone at the centre who will help you decide what is the best volunteering opportunity for you.
The Volunteer Centre, 477-5180. Web: volunteermanitoba.ca
Well, selfish reasons are OK. Even guilt is OK. But here are one man's reasons:
"We are fortunate to have what we have. There are so many who live on less than we throw away every day," says Terry Woods, who volunteers for a number of organizations.
"But I wouldn't call it guilt. Volunteering is a recognition of our pure good fortune that we live in a rich country. It is just an accident of birth" that we have what we have. "Nothing we have done, positive or negative, has any effect on that."
So, don't call it guilt. Call it gratitude.