Volunteer shortage felt everywhere
Bill Jost has been volunteering at Wildwood Park Community Centre for about 20 years.
Now the club president, Jost has seen Wildwood kids such as former hockey player and current Sportsnet analyst Jennifer Botterill grow up and rise to national notoriety. She even celebrated a Stanley Cup in 2016 with her brother Jason, who was assistant general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins at the time (he is now assistant GM of the Seattle Kraken).
Volunteering at the centre — and elsewhere, as Jost has volunteered here and there all his life — has given Jost a sense of connection to his community, of contributing to making his neighbourhood a better place, and of accomplishment, he said.
However, Jost has seen the number of volunteers around him dwindle in the last few years. The pandemic punctuated and decimated those waning numbers, and since reopening, volunteerism at the club has not regained the strength it once had.
“Seems like when I first started, there was more involvement by the people that lived in the neighbourhood. Now, we have lots of people in the neighbourhood that come and enjoy the community centre and come skate and play hockey, but it gets harder and harder to find people to organize events,” Jost said.
He said it’s usually possible to round up people on the day of an event to pitch in to set up, but the rest of the work falls to an ever-smaller group.
If numbers keep declining, community centres like Wildwood Park will be put in a tough position.
That’s because Wildwood Park and many smaller community centres around Winnipeg are 100 per cent volunteer-run. Some larger centres have administrative staff but even those rely on volunteers to run events. More and more often, they too are struggling to gather people.
For Jost, whose father was also president of Wildwood Park Community Centre, the lack of community involvement is a bit of a shot to the gut.
“It’s kind of disappointing … As kids, that’s all we did. We spent all the time at the community centre,” he said.
This decline in volunteerism is far from an isolated situation.
Lora Meseman is the executive director of the General Council of Winnipeg Community Centres, which supports all Winnipeg community centres and acts as the go-between for centres and city administration. Meseman said the trend has been prevalent for years and was exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think with folks stepping away when they close the centre, and for so long, people moved on. When it came time to come back and start to gather again, I think a lot of people have been hesitant,” Meseman said.
“ As kids, that’s all we did. We spent all the time at the community centre…
In 2018, Winnipeg community centres reported a total of 14,314 volunteers. When the pandemic struck in 2020, that number dropped drastically to 5,676 volunteers. With the widespread closures owing to the pandemic, a drop was to be expected but after reopening in 2022, the numbers have recovered only marginally, with community centres reporting 7,805 volunteers — just over half of pre-COVID numbers.
Given the city’s current model for community centres, that’s an alarming trend, Meseman said.
“In the city of Winnipeg, our model of community centres is very unique. The board of directors at community centres are volunteers and, primarily, community centres are run through volunteer support. The funding they get from the City of Winnipeg is intended for maintenance and really doesn’t cover the cost of employees,” Meseman said.
Meseman said her organization, alongside City staff, will conduct a large-scale review of the current community centre model for Plan 2045, which aims to update the existing plan and bring it into alignment with the OurWinnipeg 2045 plan and the city’s newest recreation strategy.
The project will seek feedback from community members and volunteers, and will examine each aspect of running a community centre.
As volunteer boards dwindle from about 16 people to often less than half that, Meseman said it’ll be necessary to reimagine volunteer responsibilities and functions.
Meseman, Jost, and community centres around Winnipeg hope to change the shifting tide in volunteerism and draw helpers into their clubs, but they’ll be fighting against a pattern that extends beyond community centres.
“We’ve noticed on a national level that there is a volunteer shortage right now,” said Kamillah El-Giadaa, training and development manager at Volunteer Manitoba
Recently, Volunteer Canada conducted a survey in which 65 per cent of responding non-profit organizations reported volunteer shortages, with about a third of those saying they’ve had to cut volunteer programming because of it.
More locally, Volunteer Manitoba is seeing more positions that ever before remain unfilled on its website. El-Giadaa said there have been over 200 vacant volunteer positions for weeks.
Gloria Dovoh, Volunteer Manitoba community relations co-ordinator,s aid there are many reasons to volunteer. It looks good on a resumé and can help advance careers. High school students can earn credits through volunteer work, as well as open up a host of possibilities for scholarships and bursaries for post-secondary education.
“And it helps you reduce your stress. You are less likely to be lonely … For seniors after retirement who don’t really have things to engage them, volunteering is a very good avenue to channel their skills and their energy,” Dovoh said.
Meseman said volunteering at community centres has its own set of benefits, too.
“I can tell you for sure, there’s an opportunity to connect with your area’s residents,” she said. “I encourage people to go and talk to volunteers. Find out more about what you can do, because there’s a sense of pride in your community. But there’s also a sense of belonging, and an opportunity for your kids to belong to something bigger than just going to school each day.”
Jost, the Wildwood Park president, invited people to combat the loss of community.
“Jump up and volunteer,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a lot of time. Just volunteer and put in whatever time you can. I get such a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment out of volunteering — that I’m doing something for the community and doing something for society. We just need more people to come and help out.”
Cody Sellar is the reporter/photographer for the Free Press Community Review West. He is a lifelong Winnipegger. He is a journalist, writer, sleuth, sloth, reader of books and lover of terse biographies. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 204-697-7206.