Poor economy brings more interest in volunteering

  • March 23, 2009
TORONTO - As she prepares to journey to South Africa this month, lay missionary Rachel Beggs says she is looking forward to caring for children with HIV/AIDS and teaching at a school run by the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood in Marianhill, near Durban.

Beggs decided a year ago to volunteer overseas, an experience the 27-year-old piano teacher hopes  will help her find a job when she returns to Peterborough, Ont., at the end of August.

More young Catholics like Beggs are considering volunteer work. Not only do they see it as a calling and an investment in the community, but some say it’s an investment in their professional development during volatile economic times.

Mary Olenick, program co-ordinator at Scarboro Missions ’ Lay Missions Office, said she has noticed an increase in interest in volunteering over the last two months. In January, there were eight inquiries from young Catholics, Olenick said, compared to a normal call rate of one every couple of months. In the past, the average age of volunteers with Scarboro Missions was between 40 and 60, but recent inquirers have been much younger. About four to six missionaries will be chosen this year for a three-year placement abroad in nations like Malawi and China.

At Free the Children, a Toronto-based non-profit group that builds schools in Africa, the numbers are also up. Within the last two years, inquiries from youth aged 14 to 21 have doubled to 1,200, said Janice Sousa, director of international trips.

South of the border, more young Catholics are also considering volunteer work.

Stephanie Galeota, program director at the Jesuit Volunteers International in Washington, D.C., said by the end of February it had 130 applications submitted, compared to 100 last year. Canadians can apply to the program.

And Ellen Kennedy of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps National Projects Office in Baltimore said her office has received 170 applications in 2009, compared to 146 at the same time last year. Kennedy said she expects more applications when the school term ends in April from people who have been unable to find a job.

But is the economy the main driver of these higher numbers?

True, volunteers receive tangible benefits, however modest: Scarboro Missions volunteers receive work-related experience, accommodation, food and transportation, along with a small stipend for a three-year placement. Jesuit Volunteer Corps volunteers earn $103 to $110 per month and a transportation allowance. Jesuit Volunteers International participants receive $77 per month and a transportation stipend. Both groups also provide health insurance, a particularly important safety net for Americans, who don’t have a universal health care system.

As unemployment rises and competition for jobs intensifies, volunteer work becomes an attractive alternative.

The North American job market is grim: In Canada, unemployment surged to 7.7 per cent in February, with a five-year high of 82,600 jobs lost. Youth aged 15 to 24 saw the fastest rate of decline, with a 14.2-per cent unemployment rate in February. In the United States, the unemployment rate rose to 8.1 per cent in February, with 651,000 lost jobs.

Volunteerism is a two-way street. Kennedy said volunteers are crucial for non-profits with tight budgets, which benefit from having highly skilled, socially active workers. In turn, said Jung-Suk Ryu of Volunteer Canada , volunteers benefit from the investment in time and resources that go into their training and management. As unemployment rises, the demand on social organizations to deliver services increases, he said. That’s when volunteers become invaluable.         

About 12 million Canadians aged 15 and older volunteered in 2003 and contributed almost two billion hours of free labour, equivalent to one million full-time jobs, according to Statistics Canada.

In exchange for work experience, permanent volunteers sacrifice a full-time salary and must  commit one or more years to a program, including preparation time before the placement.

Altruism is the primary reason Canadians volunteer. They want to make a contribution to the community by using their skills and experiences to help a cause that somehow touches them. But volunteering can also cause friction, especially if parents’ expectations are for their children to find full-time jobs, Kennedy said.

For 17-year-old Joanna Klimczak of Niagara Falls, Ont., raising $5,000 for a volunteer trip to India this summer to help build a school with Free the Children is a worthwhile endeavour.

“I know it’s going to be a life-changing experience,” she said.

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