Rural Communities Depend on Volunteers

Rural communities depend on volunteers to get things done

Part 1 of a series

“Volunteers really are the fabric that binds us together,” says Carol Sheridan, president of the Oliver Rotary Club and manager at Oliver Parks and Recreation.

“They’re absolutely essential,” agrees Sue McKortoff, mayor of Osoyoos and a volunteer with many organizations since she arrived in Osoyoos to teach school in 1968. “Volunteering allows essential things to happen in our town. How many things would not get done if we didn’t have volunteers?”

“They’re vital,” says Subrina Monteith, executive director of the Penticton-based South Okanagan-Similkameen Volunteer Centre, and a long-time volunteer in and around her community of Kaleden. “If we didn’t have volunteers in rural communities, we would feel the loss of those volunteers.”

“If you don’t have volunteers in a small community like this, nothing gets done,” agrees Cheryle King, an Osoyoos resident who has been active in the Chamber of Commerce and the Osoyoos Rotary Club, to name just a couple of her many volunteer roles in Osoyoos since 2008, and before that in Surrey.

“Most of the organizations couldn’t function [without volunteers] because you need volunteers that don’t cost money,” continues King. “They’ll plan your fundraisers for you, and they’ll get the job done. Without volunteers, this town would be shocked at what doesn’t get done.”

Volunteer Presidents - Grant from Okanagan Falls Heritage Museum Society and Ryan, SO Chamber
Grant Henderson (left), vice president of the Okanagan Falls Heritage and Museum Society, meets with Ryan Duffy, president of the South Okanagan Chamber of Commerce.
Carol Sheridan is president of the Rotary Club of Oliver. She also deals with volunteers regularly in her position as manager at Oliver Parks and Recreation (Richard McGuire Photo)

Every day in Oliver, Osoyoos and Okanagan Falls, hundreds of volunteers are pitching in to staff charitable thrift shops, food banks, minor sports, dance, figure skating, cultural events, help for seniors, hospice work, youth groups, environmental efforts, parent advisory councils and much more.
In Okanagan Falls, both the Visitor Centre and the Heritage Place facilities depend on volunteers.

Harold Cox, with the Rotary Club of Osoyoos, drops pancake batter onto a grill during the Rotary Club's pancake breakfast at Cherry Fiesta. (Richard McGuire Photo)

In Oliver and Osoyoos, many parks and recreation facilities bear the names of service clubs that put them there – some still active and others now defunct: Rotary Beach, Kinsmen Spray Park, and Lions Park in Oliver; Gyro Park, Lions Park, Kinsmen Park, and Legion Beach in Osoyoos.

Both communities have splash parks and skateboard parks spearheaded by local volunteer groups and service clubs.

Trends in volunteering and the types of organizations that are popular have changed over the decades. The demographics of volunteers have changed, but the need for volunteers is as great as ever.

“When I moved [to Oliver], one of the things that stood out from every other community I’ve lived in is how many people do volunteer,” says Sheridan. “If you’re not volunteering, you’re in the minority in a way… What can we do to get you to come out? We’re so appreciative and it really does make our community better.”

Subrina Monteith, executive director of the Penticton-based South Okanagan-Similkameen Volunteer Centre, and a long-time volunteer in and around her community of Kaleden.

Why do so many people want to volunteer?

“Social,” responds Monteith of the South Okanagan-Similkameen Volunteer Centre. “It’s a social network. It’s a friendship group. It’s community building. It’s something you’re proud to give back to the community, because you see the impact and you see the benefit the community receives by your volunteer giving.”

“Mental health, physical health, a sense of belonging,” adds Mayor McKortoff. “A sense of saying, ‘I’m helping my community, and I’m helping to make Osoyoos a better place to live.’”

King believes you don’t really know a new community until you volunteer. When she and her husband, Jim King, now an Osoyoos councillor, moved here from the Lower Mainland in 2008, they were soon thrust into volunteer roles with the Osoyoos Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce, meeting like-minded people.

“When you move to a new community, you don’t know what’s going on,” she says. “Whether it’s hockey, figure skating, baseball, volleyball or whatever you have a passion for, by joining those organizations you meet people you would never have met [otherwise].”

Cheryle King has been an active volunteer in Osoyoos since she and her husband Jim moved there in 2008. (Richard McGuire Photo)

Sheridan in Oliver agrees.

“It’s so true,” she says. “We tell people that when they come to town and ask how to meet people. You volunteer… Being part of a service club really does provide you with a bit of a network.”

You also tend to meet good people.

“People who volunteer for their community are generally very good, very caring, and very community minded people,” she adds.

A major demographic is people who are recently retired, still healthy, and looking to do something meaningful in place of their career. To fill a void.

But often people start earlier, volunteering in recreational and school groups where their children are involved – sports, dance, and parent-teacher organizations.

“Those volunteers have a vested interest,” says McKortoff. “They have a child in it. That’s a good way to get started for sure.”

Both McKortoff and King were active volunteers with Brownies, Girl Guides, and Boy Scouts when they had young children.

“I was a Brownie leader when my daughter was involved,” says McKortoff, “and I was a Cub leader when my son was involved.”

King too became a “Tawny Owl,” a Brownie leader, when her children were young.

The Guiding and Scouting movements are no longer what they were in the 1960s and 1970s, but today’s parents are just as likely to volunteer with other groups their children belong to.

Some people start a lifetime of volunteering during their own teenage years or as post-secondary students. Sheridan, who grew up in London, Ontario and lived elsewhere before coming to Oliver a decade ago, says volunteering has always been part of her life.

Members of the Osoyoos and Oliver Indo-Canadian community volunteered to hand out samosas and water on Canada Day in Osoyoos in 2022. (Richard McGuire Photo)

“For me, volunteering has always been something I’ve done,” she says, noting that her early volunteer work was with the YMCA and for different organizations through her university. Within her age demographic of 30 to 50, she says she sometimes feels in a minority with her volunteering.

“We all have kids and jobs and I know that takes a lot of time, but it’s so easy to [volunteer] a few hours every month,” she adds.

The way people commit their time is changing, says Sheridan. Some people are reluctant to make the commitment of joining a service club. But are more willing to commit their help to a one-off event.

You might have people come on one date to help with Halloween, for example, because they know that four hours later, they can walk out and be done.

“That might be more appealing to them than saying, ‘Here’s my money. I’m going to become a member and I’m going to be part of your club for the foreseeable future,’” she says. “It’s a way bigger commitment and I think that people may be afraid of that now.”

King encourages people to step forward, even if they have limited time to give.

“Just go and get out and try to make a difference if you’ve got the time,” she says. “Even an hour or two a month. It makes a huge, huge difference.”