"Why do you volunteer?" The SharedTime project asks volunteers at nonprofits in Toronto to answer this question and to probe deeply, unearthing the real reasons they started – and continue – to give back. Over the past two years, the Center for Digital Storytelling has worked with Volunteer Toronto on the SharedTime project to help capture the spirit of volunteerism in Toronto.
Before we started the project, we had no idea what the answer to this question would be. Whether, instead of compelling, emotional stories we'd get straightforward answers: "I volunteer because I need a job," or, "I volunteer because I need the hours to graduate high school." Two years and just over 50 volunteer stories later, what has become clear is that, while external factors such as those may initially motivate someone to volunteer, they are rarely – if ever – the reason that people stay.
At the beginning of every workshop, participants would almost invariably claim the reason they volunteered was simple – they just did it. Most even used some of the straightforward answers we had expected: for a job, for hours, to make friends, to gain skills, and so on. But as we sat through the story circle and started to question these answers, the answers themselves would change.
In almost every story we have heard, the deciding factor was not a matter of needing to get – whether a job reference, experience, or friendship – but rather of a strong need to give. Whether these volunteers were collecting canned veggies for a foodbank, providing a safe home for abandoned cats, or sharing vital health information through HIV workshops, their feeling of commitment and of pride was palpable.
Their deep emotion was evident in cracking, wavering voices or beaming smiles; their desire to help came from a place of hurt or hope, from intensely personal issues that they were still processing and connecting with not just as volunteers but as whole people. They are storytellers still in the middle of their stories, still living them day to day.
If creative activity is human activity, the SharedTime digital stories show us that volunteering is a healing activity. It soothes a hurt or ignites a hope, empowering people to change their lives – their stories – for the better.
As we journeyed forward in the workshops, looking back over the years of the storytellers' lives, the pieces, big and small, would start to fall into place. The civic pride of a grandmother, the harsh words of a sister, the hard death of a friend from cancer, a sunset marred by pollution – moments across lifetimes that prompted a change. What is amazing about the stories of volunteers is that they all share one major thing in common: when something happened, good or bad, they stepped forward, not back, and every time they show up for a shift they are stepping forward again, making a change in the world and in their lives.
With one year remaining in the SharedTime project, we are continuing to find inspiration in the stories of Toronto’s volunteers. As the SharedTime slogan says: “The stories are a celebration of the work already being done, and a call to action: Share Your Time. Build a better world. Build a better you.”