By Tanya Anderson
We will never be known as the fanciest neighbourhood in Victoria despite some wonderful attributes. For example, Beacon Hill Park is ours and we are blessed with easy access to that beautiful ocean. However, the number one reason I love James Bay is the diversity of the ages of both our residents and our buildings. How fitting that, as the oldest residential neighbourhood in the city, we have the highest ratio of people over age 65 living here. Why do I find that significant?
Firstly, some of our buildings date back to the 1800s. The writer and activist, Jane Jacobs said that streets that people enjoy will characteristically have old buildings mixed with the new. Secondly, many older seniors are not using cars as much now. Hence there is a vibrancy and life on our streets. Jacobs said that “sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life must grow.” Any time of day, there are seniors (and younger folk) walking, cycling, zipping along on scooters, or riding on buses. Apologies to any readers from one of the more manicured, upmarket neighbourhoods, but have you ever walked alone in some of those other places after dark? Foot traffic is almost non-existent! It can feel a bit spooky being the lone pedestrian. Walking into James Bay from downtown at night, it is almost a certainty there will be other people on the streets. This is a community where each day we encounter people we know or at least recognize.
Those same seniors, many retired, are populating the volunteer community. Along with volunteers of all ages, they donate thousands of hours of their time each year. The essential but underfunded service organizations in our neighbourhood would not be able to keep their doors open without the efforts of volunteers (and dedicated staff, of course.)
I have been a volunteer for over forty-five years. As someone now immersed in cultural studies via a Masters program at Royal Roads, I am interested in how the role of volunteer can become part of our self-identity as well as part of our social identity. Simply put, self-identity is about how we see ourselves and how we feel about that. Social identity is about the expectations and opinions others have about us. I wanted to find out if some of those senior volunteers draw a sense of self-worth from their volunteering activities as I have. I was able to secure interviews with volunteers in the elder category. What an interesting bunch they were. I loved doing those interviews as I learned a bit about how they came to be the people they are. As they answered my questions, I noticed a common theme of the appreciation of connecting with others. I talked to each one separately but have grouped their responses below:
How does volunteering add meaning to your life? Doing good feels good. I meet all kinds of people I never would have met otherwise. It makes me feel connected. Participating helps me make connections with people here. It’s rewarding helping people who need it.
Why do you volunteer? Started looking after others when I was still young and kept on going. It was intentional to meet like-minded people who shared common values. I know what it is like to be alone.
What does the word community mean to you? Feeling connected to others. The quality of a community can be measured by its connections. It’s like having another family. I love James Bay and now that [our largest supermarket] is open all night, it feels even safer than before.
Has the role of volunteer helped make you who you are? No, it’s the other way around. My profession lead me to becoming a volunteer. It hasn’t made me who I am, but it does give me a good feeling.
How does volunteering make you feel fulfilled? Makes me feel like I’m part of the human race. So many people live in isolation; it feels good to make a connection with them. It feels good to be around other volunteers, people who are looking outward, not self-absorbed.
And now I ask you, Dear Reader: Have you ever considered volunteering? As you can see, the benefits are there for those we help but also for ourselves as well.
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give” – Winston Churchill