Heart on Your Sleeve: Giving time and talent to create a virtual army of helping hands across Wood Buffalo

By Becky Rowe - Wednesday, December 1 2010

It’s a typical Friday night for Melanie Framp.  As the sun sinks behind the pines that fringe Fort McMurray’s horizon, she is hurrying down Franklin Avenue en route to yet another meeting. As treasurer for the local United Way and a member of several committees, Framp’s evenings are frequently spent in a boardroom at the Redpoll Centre, helping guide one of the region’s biggest non-profit organizations.

After her last engagement, Framp will head home to devote a few hours to the Fort McMurray chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society. As coordinator for the MS Walk, the group’s annual fundraiser, she is busy nearly all year long recruiting sponsors, organizing teams and spreading the word about the event to everyone she meets.

As if that weren’t enough, Framp is also president of the board of the Association for Community Living, which assists people with disabilities as they re-enter the workforce.

“Honestly, it’s kind of addictive,” Framp says. “Working with the not-for-profit sector gives you a totally different perspective. When you see the benefit an organization is getting from your volunteerism, it’s an amazing feeling. You see the difference it makes in your community, and when you go to bed at the end of the day, you feel so much better about yourself.”

Not only that, Framp adds that she’s had a thought-provoking journey along the way.

“I’ve met so many interesting people while volunteering,” she says. “It’s expanded my horizons so much.”

Framp is only one of countless volunteers who help keep Wood Buffalo’s not-for-profit and community organizations running. The hours and expertise they contribute are invaluable, particularly in a region like Wood Buffalo where staffing, a challenge for most charities everywhere, is particularly acute because of the level of wages and the cost of living.

“We have such unique circumstances here,” says Cassandra Flett of Volunteer Wood Buffalo. “Even with the challenges of shift work, a transient population and a town that’s constantly booming, this community is fabulous for giving back. We’re a great example for other communities of how to adapt to challenges by thinking outside the box.”

Linking volunteers across the region with 280 different community groups, charities and event-planning committees, Volunteer Wood Buffalo provides a starting point for many residents looking to get involved. It also recognizes the hard work of the hundreds of volunteers who give so much of their time and energy.

“Fort McMurray is like an island – everyone supports each other and takes care of each other,” says Roland LeFort, who works for Suncor Energy and is president of CEP Union Local 707. He volunteers for the Personal Support Network and the Labour Council and, until recently, was on the board of the Food Bank.

“Whether it’s parents assisting their kids’ sports teams or volunteers sitting on a board, the commitment people in this community make to the organizations they choose to support is just unreal. And once everything is said and done, there’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing the time you’ve put in has made a difference.”

United We Stand

While raising money is critical for the United Way and the many agencies under its umbrella, as big and well known as it is, it wouldn’t be able to achieve its mission without a dedicated core of volunteers that keep the wheels turning, says executive director Diane Shannon.

“Throughout the year we have well over 1,000 volunteers supporting us,” she says. From the 15-member board of directors to the workplace campaign coordinators and door-to-door canvassers, United Way volunteers are hard at work all year round.

Indeed, Shannon compares her volunteers to the doggedly determined mailman who makes his rounds no matter how ugly the weather.

“Sleet, snow, hail – nothing gets in their way. They’re out there no matter what,” she says proudly. “You’ve got to be pretty hardy to live here, and the people who really want to make a difference and make this their home understand that they have to make the best of it.”

Brian Hatfield is another one of what might be called “serial” volunteers. He helps out on several fronts, including the Kids Forever Foundation and the United Way. In fact, earlier this year he was honoured with the Bill Bloomfield Volunteer Recognition Award. He beat out 10 other nominees, which gives an idea of the number and calibre of volunteers that Wood Buffalo has to boast about.

“There are always organizations looking for someone to come help. You don’t have to do 40 hours a week – just give five or 10 hours of your time. It gets you away from the TV and the computer,” Hatfield urges. “You also get to meet a lot of great people.

“People here are unbelievably generous. There’s no door that I’ve knocked on where I’ve been turned away.”

It Takes a Village to Raise a Child

For kids across the region, the mentors that give their time as Big Brothers and Big Sisters are more than just volunteers – they’re role models, teachers and best friends. Their weekly time commitment is two to four hours a week, but they are asked to commit to a minimum of one full year.

“Research has proven that having a mentor for less than a year has more negative effects than not having a mentor at all,” says spokesperson Cathy Baker- Morrell.

The organization’s volunteers also have to contend with challenges unique to Wood Buffalo, including long commutes and shift work, but Baker-Morrell says her mentors find novel ways to overcome these difficulties.

“Shift workers let their ‘Littles’ know ahead of time what their work schedule is going to be. The mentors might not see them for two weeks, but they’ll make a phone call to see how their ‘Little’ did on that test or how that soccer game went,” she explains. “When they make a volunteer commitment, they follow through on it.”

According to Big Sister Sheena Roberts, who is paired up with Little Sister Connelly, “the payback is in realizing that you’re making an impact.”

“Just being around children is so great. You get to act like a kid again and do things you wouldn’t normally do as an adult, like go sledding or swimming,” she says. “It really adds to your day-to-day life – there’s so much more to life than just money.”

Food for the Hungry, Food for the Soul

The Fort McMurray Food Bank’s annual food drive may only last a few short days but the event, held in early December, can be gruelling for the staunch volunteers who man the donation trucks.

One year, the mercury dipped to -40C, but not even the frigid weather could dampen the spirits of the Food Bank stalwarts, who stuck it out with steaming cups of Tim Horton’s coffee and the heartwarming knowledge that they were making a life-saving difference in the lives of the not-so-fortunate.

Some of the event’s 200 volunteers also did duty at the Food Bank’s location on MacAlpine Drive, hauling in the 30 tons of food that was collected.

Executive director Beth MacLean says the volunteers she works with during the food drive are some of the most committed she’s ever encountered.

“Everyone w ho volunteers is so positive. They’re really willing to work – they’ll lift, pull or drag anything,” she says. “The support we get from this community is incredible. It’s like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else.”

A New ‘Leash’ on Life

The furry four-legged residents of the Fort McMurray SPCA spend most of their time in a cage or kennel, waiting patiently to be adopted. Busy kennel workers and SPCA staff have their hands full attending to the basic survival needs of the hundreds of cats and dogs that find their way to the animal shelter every year. Often the only bright spot in a shelter animal’s day is the time spent with an SPCA volunteer.

Whether it’s taking an eager dog for a brisk run along the region’s many trails or cuddling a lonely cat in their laps, SPCA volunteers play a key role in socializing the stray and abandoned animals of Wood Buffalo.

“They play a vital part here,” says executive director Catherine Stevenson.

“They spend time with the animals, taking them for walks or grooming them. It makes a massive difference in the lives of these animals because it gets them adopted faster.”

For their part, the volunteers get as much as they give, says Stevenson. “There are a lot of rewards. They bond with certain animals that become their favourites. Giving them that extra attention that they need feels really good, and the animals give back unconditional love.”

Nicole Bradfield admits that she does indeed have a favourite – Jaxon, who is thought to be about two years old, is definitely part German Shepherd and maybe part coyote, and is unquestionably cute. Bradfield would love to have a pet but she commutes between Fort McMurray and Edmonton, so she can’t take on the responsibility right now. By volunteering at the SPCA, however, she indulges her love of animals and she gets to do good at the same time. She typically runs with Jaxon for about an hour – often to the airport and back, and she sticks to that routine in pretty much all weather, even winter.

“I love being around the animals and it’s definitely helped me meet people and become part of the community,” says Bradfield, who also volunteers for the CIBC Run for the Cure. “This is my yoga, my chance to cool off and relax. It’s my zen zone. Running with the dogs helps me as much as it helps them.”


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