We’ve relied heavily on women’s unpaid work; Can volunteers keep up the pace?

By Nancy Payne

Volunteering brings 'profound satisfaction' to Valmay Barkey. Photo: Sienna Frost.

Picture a community-minded female volunteer from the past. Perhaps you think of a hatted and gloved lady pouring tea at a charity luncheon, or a farm woman teaching teenaged girls how to sew curtains. Maybe it’s an image of capable women from 70 years ago organizing a campaign for the Ross Memorial Hospital or Academy Theatre … and then handing over the proceeds to a largely male board of directors.

Whether or not those pictures were ever true to life, it’s increasingly clear that they aren’t any more. Women volunteers have long been the backbone of a wide range of community initiatives, but their involvement is changing.

While of course men do an enormous amount of volunteering in areas that benefit people all over Kawartha Lakes, Statistics Canada figures— which include all types of volunteer work — show that about 40 per cent of men in Ontario volunteer compared to 43 per cent of women.

Remove coaching, where men are overrepresented, from the equation, however, and the gap widens when it comes to volunteering for efforts that provide care for those in need and strengthen the community. And even if the proportion of each gender involved in volunteering looks similar, the average female volunteer gave 137 hours per year compared to the average male’s 104 hours. (Statistics Canada did not have information on volunteering among gender non-conforming individuals.)

Many local agencies that keep track of volunteers’ gender note a strong prevalence of women. Kawartha Lakes Food Source reports that 68 per cent of its volunteers are female. Women also form the majority of the volunteers in the Ross Memorial Hospital’s auxiliary and at the Humane Society of Kawartha Lakes. At Hospice Kawartha Lakes, about 80 per cent of trained volunteers are female, the same proportion as at the Academy Theatre.

You probably know a woman — or, more likely, several women — who for decades have devoted much of their free time to helping ensure people have food, shelter, safety from an abuser, places to experience theatre, art and music, and that faith communities stay strong. In more restrictive times, volunteering offered women a chance to get out of the house, socialize and do satisfying work, even if they weren’t paid for it.

Long-time volunteer Kathy Anderson cites the example of her own mother. “I had such a role model in her. She was a teacher, but when she got married, she was fired from the school board because married women weren’t allowed to teach in Oshawa then. She became a really wonderful volunteer in the community right until she died at 90.”

The number of Canadian women doing paid work outside the home rose sharply from the 1950s until 1990, but much more slowly after that. Many of the non-profit groups that benefit our community were in fact started and sustained by women who were also raising families and working outside the home.

There’s always a need for volunteers, says Pat Clarke. Photo: Sienna Frost.

Pat Clarke started volunteering when she was about 18 and has been a driving force in all kinds of community-oriented ventures around Lindsay, from the hospital’s auxiliary, board of governors and capital campaigns, to St. Mary’s church, Rotary, the curling club, the art gallery and more. She was named Citizen of the Year and has been inducted into the local sports hall of fame.

Why bother? “Because there’s always a need,” she says. “I know what it’s like to come from a large family and have nothing.”

Throughout it all, she taught school — even earning a prestigious Teacher of the Year designation for Ontario — and was involved with her own family’s activities. She rejects the idea that women had fewer demands on their time in the past. “Anybody who gets involved with volunteering with me knows that you don’t ever say ‘I can’t help with that because I’m too busy.”

That said, several groups she used to be involved with have folded, as have others that were once community mainstays: all but two Women’s Institute groups, the local IODE, 4H sewing and cooking groups, for instance, and the women’s counterpart to Kinsmen, the Kinettes. Barb Truax, another long-time volunteer for myriad causes, remembers Kinettes cleaning and repainting dolls and other toys for the annual toy drive. It was a social gathering as well as a way to help brighten Christmas for others. “But now everything has to be bought new, and it’s all plastic,” she adds with a laugh.

Faith communities have also typically benefited from the hard work of volunteer groups such as the Anglican Church Women, United Church Women and the Catholic Women’s League. Membership in many of these groups has declined sharply, and although the remaining members are active and dedicated, their average age is steadily increasing.

“It seems more difficult now for a lot of people to volunteer,” says Truax, who also worked outside the home for much of her volunteering career. She says it’s harder now to find younger people to step into organizing roles or to serve as committee chairs.

Rather than asking them to take on open-ended or longer-term commitment to a board of directors or committee, many organizations are finding better success recruiting women to organize a specific event or volunteer their professional skills in a defined role. “You have to uncomplicated things,” says Clarke. “Everybody’s time is so very precious.”

“It’s really important to have a good work-life-volunteer balance,” says Penny Barton-Dyke, executive director of the local United Way. Government studies consistently show that in addition to working more hours outside the home, women still do much more of the unpaid work of child care, housework, cooking, grocery shopping and elder care than men do — an average of 2.5 hours more per day, according to Statistics Canada.

There have also been huge changes in how we perceive family life and kids’ activities over the past few decades. Where parents once sent their children to walk to practices and music lessons and didn’t necessarily attend every one of their kids’ events, the norm now is a much higher level of parental involvement in their kids’ more heavily scheduled lives.

“They’re expected to have a huge social life and do all these other things. And because they’re involved, you are, too,” says Tarina Koty. The mother of five spent decades as a Girl Guide leader and is deeply involved in Lindsay Little Theatre as well as her children’s activities.

She says the expectations of parents have changed over the years. “A lot of it is mandatory now.” For instance, parents are told when their child enrols in some activities that they must put in a certain number of volunteer hours or pay additional fees. Koty enjoys much of her volunteer work, but says those mandatory hours are less satisfying. “I don’t necessarily even know the people I volunteer with.”

Women who want to address needs in the community are also finding new ways to contribute. “You want to make a difference but your time is limited,” says Sharon Robbins, one of the founders of 100 Women Who Care Kawartha Lakes. The group asks members to come to just three one-hour meetings a year, and donate $100 per individual or team of two to a charity selected by a vote after five-minute presentations.

Its first meeting attracted 130 people; membership now stands at more than 240 and the group has donated more than $160,000 to local causes since its inception in 2016. “It’s allowed women to come together and to have some control over how their money would be used. It reflects a much more active role that women are playing in society as a whole,” says Robbins.

The selected charity reports back to members on how their donation has been spent. “They like being able to say ‘I helped build a new laundry facility at A Place Called Home,’” Robbins says. She and the other two founders, Bella Alderton and Sharon Smith-Carter, have handed over organizing duties to a new team. A similar group, United Women Helping Others, takes on small, focused projects such as purchasing a greenhouse for Community Living and a printer for the John Howard Society’s educational program.

Charities and non-profit organizations have also become more professional over the years, attracting funding that allows them to hire paid staff. Take Meals on Wheels, for instance. It started in the kitchen of Cambridge Street United Church when a group of women decided they wanted to help seniors who were unable to do much cooking or shopping for themselves. The women cooked as their kids played around their ankles, with their husbands often doing the deliveries.

Now operated by Community Care, Meals on Wheels delivered 28,000 meals to 400 people in Kawartha Lakes in 2020. The little initiative begun to help neighbours in need now involves dozens of volunteers and staff. “With more bureaucracy and the increasing difficulty of getting volunteers, staffing has increased for entities that used to be almost entirely volunteer-based,” says Valmay Barkey, a lifelong volunteer who was central in the founding of Community Care.

Likewise, women have taken their place in paid positions at charities where they may once have only been welcomed as volunteers, giving them the satisfaction of meaningful work as well as the reward of a paycheque. A quick glance at the leadership of local charities and social agencies shows women at the top of many organizational charts.

For women working long hours at a job on top of the unpaid workload at home, precious spare minutes are preserved for family time or family-focused volunteering. Once the kids grow up, though, they find new roles to step into. “Those women are bringing their skills from the workplace into their volunteer work and many are offering a high level of expertise,” says Barkey.

“I was brought up with the belief that you always volunteer,” says Wanda Percival, a former high school principal. “I couldn’t do that when I was teaching, but I always said I would volunteer when I retired.” True to her word, she chairs the hospital board, sits on the police services board, is involved with the women’s Probus club and church work, and spent many years volunteering with the Ontario College of Teachers.

When kids’ activities demand less of their volunteer time, many women turn their energy to causes that benefit the wider community. “I can see myself doing that,” says Koty. “There’s so much that you can help out with.”

Barton-Dyke says she’s optimistic about the future. “We get calls from both men and women saying ‘I’ve gotten to this point in life and now I want to volunteer and give back.’” Even more encouraging, though, are the young people she sees who do their college placements or required high school stints at local non-profits. “Many of them come back and volunteer after they’ve done their mandatory hours. They give me a lot of hope.”

From the Academy Theatre to the Kawartha Art Gallery, from Community Care to Community Living, from 100 Women Who Care to Women’s Resources, Girl Guides, school councils, churches, food banks, the hospital auxiliary and so many more worthy organizations, women’s volunteer work is indispensable. And no matter how busy those women are, for many, the idea of not volunteering is unthinkable. “Every single person should volunteer. You can’t live in a community and not give back,” says Clarke. “The rewards are just so great.”

Not only do you meet some wonderful people, says Barkey, you experience profound satisfaction. “Volunteering gives that deep, sustained joy when you know you’ve made a difference in someone’s life. It’s a way to become part of the warp and weft of a community.”

In fact, she says, that last idea is the most important one. “I just think that word is so powerful. No matter how we do it, we still need to make community.”

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