The right to give

The women gathered every weekday in the small room beside a church pastored by a Canadian Oblate priest on the outskirts of Lima, Peru.

The women gathered every weekday in the small room beside a church pastored by a Canadian Oblate priest on the outskirts of Lima, Peru.

A table provided a surface for them to prepare the vegetables.

A two-burner gas stove on the only other table held enormous soup pots where the ingredients went when ready.

There were no chairs to be seen. This was a space for work.

The smiles on the women’s faces and the light banter, though, revealed that they didn’t regard their common work as drudgery. The ‘olla comun’ or common pot that brought them together was the Peruvian style of a soup kitchen.

With a modest contribution from participating families and some support from the Peruvian government and overseas donations channeled through their parish church, they cooked a daily meal for their families and neighbours.

Their voluntary effort provided a real tangible benefit for the community. The hot meals they would carry back to their modest homes that climbed up the arid slopes of Comas nourished bodies but also the hope for a better tomorrow.

I don’t think I will ever forget their smiles.

A few years later, I visited a crowded office that occupied an upper floor of a nondescript building in the core of Budapest, Hungary.

It had taken me a number of inquiries to find it. It was still months before the Berlin Wall would be breached in November of 1989.

The Hungarian Committee for UNICEF had slowly knit together a network of volunteers.

They had begun to shape a civil response to the needs of children in poorer areas of the globe.

Authoritarian governments of whatever stripe, recognize that community-based initiatives weaken their control.

They allow people to respond to unfulfilled needs. Their actions erode confidence in the myth of an all powerful state.

The emergence of non-profit groups like the Hungarian Committee for UNICEF signaled the evolution of a vibrant new society in that country.

Volunteers play a crucial role in our Yukon communities as well.

Tens of thousands of hours are freely given each year here in support of hundreds of organizations that impact on all aspects of our lives from healthcare to education, sports to the environment.

The scores of volunteers who fanned out across Whitehorse in the annual In the Spirit of Caring church food drive earlier this week, provided an excellent example of the crucial role volunteers play here.

They collected and sorted the thousands of pounds food needed to sustain the Maryhouse and Salvation Army emergency food programs over the summer.

Across Canada the 2004 Survey on Giving Volunteering and Participating found that 11.8 million of our fellow citizens gave nearly 2 billion hours of voluntary service to their communities.

Over 161,000 charities and nonprofit corporations and an estimated 870,000 unincorporated community-based organizations depend on them according to the Ottawa-based Volunteer Bénévoles Canada (www. volunteer.ca).

However the survey also noted alerted us to the fact that  “super” volunteers, those 11 per cent who contribute 77 per cent of all volunteer hours,” are aging.

Next week is National Volunteer Week.

It honours the crucial contribution of our volunteers but also challenges us to ensure that the right to give is passed on to our youth.

The continued development of strong, healthy and democratic communities demands this of us.

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