Adapting: When in Canada, Do as the Canadians Do… Volunteer!

By Kerstin Auer

Sure I like to help out. But volunteer for an event and commit to it from beginning to end? Not exactly my thing… after all, I am busy working, writing and taking care of two children and a husband!

I admit those were my thoughts when my neighbour Mike asked me if I was interested in volunteering for the First Annual Great Canadian Bike Rally right here in Merritt, BC. A little hesitant at first, I told him I would help out if it fit my schedule and if my 9-year old son Marius could tag along. To my surprise, he was not put off by my “demands” and said he would be happy to have both Marius and me on his team. My son and I went to the rally office to sign up and in May 2011, two months before the rally, we officially became part of the volunteer family.

Volunteering is a very Canadian thing to do, so I am told, and I can say for sure that it made me feel like I belong and I am part of something important.

The Great Canadian Bike Rally Association is a non-profit organization based in Merritt, BC and is committed to raising money for the BC Children’s Hospital and the Circle Square Ranch by putting on a premier Bike Rally with bike games, street malls and entertainment. Like many other local (and even national) organizations, the Merritt Rally depends on volunteers. Without them, it wouldn’t be able to operate at all. Administration costs have to be kept lean in order to raise money for the charities of choice and the only way to achieve this is with the help of volunteers. Sounds like a pretty important job, eh?

In the weeks leading up to the rally, Marius and I went out and hung up posters, spread the word about the upcoming event and started meeting other volunteers. We met people in our little town we had never talked to before and all along we felt like our contribution was really appreciated. I had always thought that volunteering means you show up, do your job, go home – but shortly after we signed up I realized it is so much more than that.

It is an opportunity for personal growth, gathering experiences and connecting to people – and from an immigrant perspective that means integration!

Once the rally rolled into town in July, we were assigned to our stations at the headquarters. Marius and I were registering participants, selling merchandise and making sure every visitor would feel welcome in Merritt. For four days we worked with lots of other volunteers from Merritt and learned yet another surprising thing – the process of integration is not unique to immigrants but something that even Canadians have to deal with, when moving to another town. One of the ladies who was working with us for the duration of the event told me that they had moved to Merritt from Vancouver and volunteering had given her the chance to become part of the community, which is not an easy task in a small town. What a revelation!

For my son, being a volunteer was a special experience as well. He was the youngest helper and really got a chance to prove that his contribution was just as valuable as everyone else’s. The ticketing system was completely computerized and every ticket purchased in advance online had to be scanned for validation. There were a few glitches with the equipment and Marius was the go-to guy to keep the equipment running. He figured out how to reset the scanners in no time and in the end he was told by the company running the ticketing platform that he would have a job with them as soon as he was old enough. He can also count on several other volunteers giving him a good reference, once he is looking for his first job – not bad for giving up a few hours of his summer break, right?

After the rally our jobs were done, but we are still reaping the benefits. We are part of a group now that enjoys recognition and appreciation in the community and even though I considered us integrated before, this experience has taken it to a whole new level.

Marius and I both got a chance to prove our abilities and diligence and the connections we made to other members of the community are a valuable foundation for our future success in Canada.

To sum it all up – I can recommend the volunteer experience to anyone trying to get settled in Canada, whether it is in a small town or larger city. There are non-profit organizations available to help with settlement and integration of new immigrants and those programs are certainly valuable, but maybe not available everywhere. If you have access to programs like S.U.C.C.E.S.S., go ahead and use them – and then become a volunteer for them yourself! If you don’t have a program to help you with settlement in your area – get involved in a local charity or non-profit organization. You will be amazed how much helping out others will help you get integrated in the process.

As for Marius and me, we have already signed up to volunteer for the next Great Canadian Bike Rally in 2012 and then it will be us welcoming new volunteers to the family!