Volunteering changed my life. It may even have saved it.

That’s no exaggeration. I’d been in the mental hospital for six months, then I was moved out to a small options home. I was still depressed, my self-esteem and self-confidence were in shreds. I thought I’d never have a job again.

I’d been a volunteer tutor and done a few short-term volunteer jobs here and there, but at that point in my life, I thought I should aim for a paying job, and get off social assistance.  When I applied to enter the provincial government diversity pool, a perceptive human resource person, who knew I wasn’t ready for full-time work, referred me Spencer Bevan-John, who published a national disability magazine from his home office in Dartmouth. In what I admit was a half-hearted fashion, I called and told him I’d like to volunteer as a writer.

I’d always wanted to be a writer. At Ability Network magazine, a cross-disability publication that gave a voice to people with disabilities across the country, I could write. I could do routine office work, like faxing, photocopying, taking messages and working on mail-outs. And I could practice my computer skills. Usually, to land a job at a magazine, a person would have to have considerably more confidence and work experience than I had.  I was grateful for the opportunity to learn about the publishing world from the inside out, even if I wasn’t being paid.  Doing it for free was almost reassuring- because then, whatever I could contribute in my frail state would be better than nothing.
At my volunteer job I was often alone since Spencer worked full-time. As my own boss in the homey setting of his office, I felt comfortable, useful, productive and motivated. Having somewhere to go and something to do three mornings a week was a huge stabilizing factor for me. And even when I was having a bad day, and could do little more than take phone messages, it was soothing to spend time there.

Volunteering at the magazine was a healing experience. It was, in fact, a lifeline.  It allowed me to feel I wasn’t just a person with a mental illness, but a worker as well, one who was appreciated for my skills and efforts. Spencer was sensitive to my limitations as a person living with mental illness and was flexible when it came to work hours and the tasks I accomplished. I came to see my experience of mental illness as an asset at Ability Network because it gave me an “in” to the world of disability that I was learning and writing about.

A couple times over the course of the three years I worked for Spencer, he was able to hire me on a grant, to pay me to do what I had done as a volunteer and more, including selling advertising and working on research projects. But I almost missed the relatively more carefree volunteer days as assistant to the editor. It was my volunteer time at Ability Network that allowed me to build my interviewing and writing skills, accumulate a portfolio of published clips, and gain the confidence to begin freelance writing for pay, which became my passion and my profession.

Without volunteering at Ability Network, I’m not sure where my life would have gone. I might still be wishing I was a writer, instead of being one. And I can honestly say that I might not even be alive if I hadn’t had my volunteer work to go back to, during those tenuous times when I landed in hospital again, only to emerge fragile as a butterfly.

Spencer stopped publishing Ability Network in 2008 for financial reasons. It was a sad day when Spencer decided he could no longer put the magazine out, but he’s heard many a time from me how grateful I am for the short time it existed. As its name indicates, Ability Network let me showcase my abilities, and to network with other people with disabilities, who became a community for me.  I can honestly say that whatever I gave to my volunteer work, it gave back to me a thousand times more… in meaning, satisfaction, and practical experience. For that, I’ll be forever grateful.

Some findings from Statistics Canada’s 2004 Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating:

During a one-year period, nearly 12 million Canadians, or 45 per cent of the population aged 15 and over, did some volunteering through a group or organization. Their contributions totalled almost 2 billion hours, which was equivalent to one million full-time jobs.

On average, volunteers contributed 168 hours each.

In 2004, Nova Scotia had 377,000 volunteers, a 48 per cent volunteer rate.

With respect to hours per year, volunteers in British Columbia contributed an average of 199 hours, the highest, followed by volunteers in the Yukon (196) and Nova Scotia (195).

Canadians’ top three reasons for volunteering were: to make a contribution to the community, to use one’s skills and experiences, and being affected by the cause supported by the organization. 

Nova Scotia Volunteer Forum.

About Anna Quon

Anna is an accomplished freelance/creative writer and writing workshop facilitator. She lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.  She is passionate about many things, especially writing. It is through her writing, and her volunteer work with community organizations, that Anna honours the lives of people who, like her, are living with mental illness.

In 2008, Anna received the Inspiring Lives Award from the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia.

Visit Anna's website.