LivingArts: Volunteer Value

In the wake of a fabulous volunteer driven festival like the Hamilton Fringe Festival,  I am reminded of the immense value that volunteers have to the arts in our community and also the incalculable impact that volunteerism has had on my own life. Truly the greatest adventures I've had in my life can all be traced back to work done for love, not money. There is a danger in our capitalist society to look at unpaid activities as worthless, or, at best, as resume padding. I hope that by sharing some of my adventures in volunteering I can inspire you to invest an hour or two of your time into your community and into starting your own adventures. 

When you hear the word 'adventure' I know that you may be expecting stories about traveling to exotic places, but my adventures have all been much closer to home: here in Hamilton and surrounding communities. These adventures started in high school when my father suggested that I join him in spending one hour a week at a local museum. The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum is one of the best aviation museums in the country; history buffs travel from all over the world to visit it. The museum famously houses a one of a kind collection of flight worthy restored aircraft including the undisputed crown jewel of the museum, the Avro Lancaster.  The restoration of these aircraft is a painstaking and much beloved art.

On my first day as a volunteer there I remember thinking that there would be nothing for me to do since I had no applicable skills. Boy was I wrong! I spent one hour each week for the next four years painting, cleaning, riveting, and getting to know the veterans whose volunteer hours are the backbone of the museum. Meeting those men and women and hearing their stories had a profound effect on me.  Two weeks after my 18th birthday my father and I were able to fly in the Lancaster in our capacity as volunteers, accompanying her to an Air Show in London, Ontario.  Forty-five minutes each way in a flying piece of history; it was quite the adventure, one that I know both my father and I cherish. 

In my twenties I happened to visit another local gem: Westfield Heritage Village. This large pioneer village is made up of historical buildings that have been broken down, transported, and rebuilt as well as some recreated buildings arranged into a small town. There's a school house, a shoemaker, a woodworking shop, a printing press, a church, a weaver, several homes and, most excitingly, a blacksmith shop. During my visit I found myself mesmerized watching the blacksmith work. I signed up to volunteer that same day. Every other Saturday for two years I had a chance to learn the trade of blacksmithing 1890s style. The hand pumped bellows I used was more than 200 years old and still worked just fine. Every weekend, even in December, a village of volunteers arrives hours before any guests to get in costume and start the fires that warm each building. People who are passionate about local history are incredibly valuable to that local community. They advocate for the preservation of local buildings and bring history to life through reenactments. They preserve and revive skills that might otherwise be totally lost. I learned how to literally strike while the iron is hot and gained much more insight about how luxurious our modern lives really are. Stepping through the gate and into history was always magical.

Last, but certainly not least, I was able to discover my passion for theatre through volunteer work. This great adventure which led me to be involved in more productions than I can remember, began at the thriving arts incubator, the Staircase Theatre. However, at the time that I first encountered it you might not recognize it. Would you believe that the fabulous cafe that now sports a menu of tasty gourmet treats and craft beer was originally a small fridge with some cans of soda and a tackle box cash register? Through the years that I was lucky enough to attend workshops and volunteer nights it has grown into an essential part of our arts community. Now with three performance spaces and activities as diverse as karate and karaoke it is a hub of creative energy. Not only did the opportunity to participate in such a wonderful organization ignite my passion for theatre but, many years later, it was on that stage that I would meet my husband. 

My contributions to these organizations were tiny, especially when weighed against the rewards I reaped. And yet with the contributions of countless individuals we have these amazing community building organizations. You can visit any one of these fabulous organizations for your own adventure and perhaps even offer an hour or two of your time to start your own adventure.