The Power of a Volunteer

04/19/2013 05:30 EDT | Updated 06/19/2013 05:12 EDT

In March, a small team of us from World Vision Canada travelled to Bolivia to visit some of the communities where we work. In one town, I got to meet an amazing group of children aged seven to 12, who had organized themselves into their own action group. Together, they would march and lobby outside local municipal offices. People recognized them as an official community group, campaigning for what they instinctively knew to be their basic civil rights.

Andrea, an 11-year-old girl full of passion and vibrancy, identified herself as their leader. At first she spoke to us about the importance of her education and what she wanted to be when she grew up. But then her focus quickly shifted to the country from which she knew my colleagues and I hailed. "What are Canadian children demanding of their government" she asked us?

We looked at each other blankly thinking "What? Did she really ask that? How am I going to answer this?" None of us knew what to say. Finally, we decided on: "In Canada, parents are often the voice of the children."

But even as we left Bolivia, her question resonated with me, lingering as a challenge. If children as young as Andrea could be a voice for change in this small Bolivian town, what more should we, as adult Canadians, be capable of doing?

Volunteers as a flash mob

As we celebrate National Volunteer Week, I've been considering the parallel between volunteering and a "flash mob." A flash mob is a group of people who care about one particular cause and show it in a way that grabs everyone's attention. You might be walking down the street, or simply eating in the food court, and suddenly there are people all around you who stop what they're doing to break into some sort of coordinated action. It might be a song or a dance. These mobs appear to be spontaneous, but in reality, often take weeks of planning.

During a flash mob, you witness commitment, hard work, passion, fun, creativity, and the celebration of an achievement. And often times, if you're not in a part of it, you want to be.

A one-person flash mob would simply not have the same effect as the entire group collectively, just like young Andrea may not have had the same effect as the entire group of children. People pay attention to flash mobs because it's amazing to see what they can accomplish together. This special action inspires others to take notice and hopefully, take action as well.

Our volunteers in action

Non-profit organizations are witnessing a demand for volunteer involvement. At World Vision, there are a variety of ways to do something incredible. Some volunteers like Donna White of Thunder Bay, Ontario, travel overseas through a program called Destination Life Change. These volunteers visit a community, work hard while on the ground there, and share their stories of children in need once back in Canada.

Not only does Donna lead a group of World Vision Volunteers and fundraisers throughout the year, she is single-handedly responsible for finding sponsors for over 200 children. As a well-known advocate in the community, Donna was recently recognized for her efforts with a Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal.

Other volunteers know you don't have to travel long distances to make a big difference. Joanna Chang of Brampton, Ontario, comes into the World Vision Canada office, to regularly prepare pictures of children in need of sponsorship. Canadians interested in sponsoring a child see these photos, and realize that they're connecting with real children.

"Working with the photos is touching," says Chang. "You can see the difference you're making."

Some volunteers like Wayne Westby of Mississauga, Ontario, push past personal limits to help raise funds. As a marathoner, Wayne stretched himself to find a child sponsor for each of the 26 miles he ran in the Dallas Marathon. Once Wayne met his goal, he converted miles into kilometres, creating a new target of finding 42 child sponsors -- which he then surpassed!

Don't live in Ontario? Don't worry! One of the most popular ways volunteers get involved is with World Vision's Special Events program, which enables volunteers from across the country to assist at concerts, conferences, and sporting events in the evening or on the weekends. Sandi Hamm from Winnipeg started volunteering with Special Events over five years ago. Her most memorable moment came at an event whose audience was primarily filled with high school students.

"I remember saying, 'It's going to be really hard to get a child sponsored today,'" said Hamm. Much to her surprise, over 25 children were sponsored -- mainly by high school students! "It was amazing," shares Hamm. "The students were so eager."

Volunteering is intentional

At World Vision, we are constantly reminded of how lucky we are to have volunteers with such incredible commitment and generous hearts. It is never lost on us that volunteering requires an effort that goes beyond the call of duty and is, above all, intentional. We know that when volunteers offer up their time and efforts, that behind the scenes, they're busy juggling schedules, putting other priorities on the back burner, and managing their own families.

But similar to the flash mob, their intentionality is what makes the impact. This isn't something they've just wandered into. Having individuals who are so passionate about the needs of children globally -- and the work that is being done to help them -- is a crucial part of the work done to aid these needs. After all, who can better speak to the power of child sponsorship, than the volunteers who are sponsors themselves?

Knowing that this commitment to the children and communities we serve is so strong that it drives our volunteers to so graciously prioritize their time to us leaves me constantly grateful.

Volunteers are the backbone

Often times, when we see communities and countries moving forward with dreams of development, it's easy to give all the credit to charities themselves. But in Canada alone, half of all non-profit organizations and charities are run largely by volunteers. Roughly, this means that for every person employed at a charity there are seven volunteers.

Here's some more proof of volunteers' impact:

  • According to the 2010 Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating by Statistics Canada, volunteers in Canada have increased by 1 million in Canada since 2007.
  • As per the same survey, 13.3 million Canadians, or about half the population over the age of 15, have volunteered.
  • The Gallup World Poll found that 16 per cent of the adult population worldwide volunteers with an organization.
  • If volunteers were a nation they would make up the 10th largest country in the world!

Volunteers not only do amazing things for the organizations that they support, but they inspire those around them to act as well. At World Vision, we strive to build leaders and we believe that international development is truly a global movement of inspired volunteers working together.

So I ask as we celebrate National Volunteer Week -- will you join our mob?

Elizabeth Goncalves works with volunteers for World Vision Canada, and is constantly amazed by their commitment to changing the lives of children around the world.

To learn more about volunteer opportunities with World Vision Canada, visit