Cheri McLeod; We need a community foundation to thrive together Muskoka - Importance of volunteerism

Cheri McLeod

I’ve never had trouble making friends in the past. I’m the sort of person who can make a friend in a grocery store checkout line or waiting at a bus stop. I’m compassionate, friendly and generally interested to learn something from everyone. So imagine my surprise when I relocated to this area and found, a year after moving up here, that I didn’t actually have any local friends to just hang out with.

Sure, I was chatty with the staff that worked at the store, or the township office and library, but it wasn’t like in the community I lived in before, where I could go for a walk and be pretty sure I’d bump into someone I knew. Here, I’d never bump into anyone as I had intentionally moved to a property way out of town, off the grid and without year round neighbours. The solitude was essential to my survival after my brain injury - certainly gave me lots of time to homestead or create art. But I knew that I’d need to get out more and make friends because it’s the balance that keeps me moving forward. The first winter I spent alone here was so incredibly beautiful but terribly lonely towards the end of the 6 months of snow. Home was just what I wanted but community is equally important to me.

There wasn’t anyone local I could call to just have a visit with or ask for a favour, and that was my own fault. I relied on my safety net of previous friends through the power of social media and cell phones, but knew that I’d need to make an effort to find local, like minded people. In the past I had made friends with people through community groups and volunteering for events so I knew that would be the best first step.

But where to volunteer?

As summer faded into fall, I figured it was time to start making plans to be social and avoid winter depression. The answer came to me quickly in the form of a flyer. The town was creating a strategic plan and was looking for citizens to be on the committee. I couldn’t believe my luck. I’m very interested in municipal politics and had worked on the strategic plan in my previous community through public consultations. It seemed perfect for me. When I applied for the position, the Deputy Clerk asked “And could we also interest you in a position on the Recreation Committee? They really need some help.” I agreed to that, too. What the heck. I have the time.

While I was on a roll saying yes, a headline in the local paper caught my attention. It claimed that a popular long running event may have to be cancelled as there weren’t enough volunteers to make it happen. I hated the sound of that. I knew how important big events were to small towns and I understood how groups needed a new influx of members once in a while to ensure the other members don’t get burnt out. At the end of the article was an email address for one of the organizers and I promptly sent off a message asking how I could help. The positions available weren’t anything I had experience with but I was willing to learn and they were willing to teach. The meetings were held 2 towns over, a 45 minute drive; not ideal but I thought I’d give it a try. I’m so glad I did.

Volunteering has given me so many rewards. As someone with a disability, it gives me an opportunity to give back to my community. Being part of a team is something I have missed since leaving the workforce; and it gives me the opportunity to learn new skills, share the talents I have and most of all, get to know my community better. The friends I have made through these volunteer experiences are of all ages, in a variety of fields of work and from all walks of life. Some I only see at our meetings and with others I have developed friendships and know I can count on them if I’m in need.

This past summer I celebrated my third anniversary of living here with my son, who has since come to live here, and I thought about hosting an open house for our friends. We wanted to share our beautiful forest with them and thank them for being part of our lives. These new friends have stepped up in ways I never could have dreamed of, and made our lives so much better.

The friend that offer showers when we close down our well for the winter. The friends that thought of us when they were upgrading their kitchen and gifted us with a fridge and stove. The friends that offer rides to meetings when the weather is stormy so I don’t have to make the trip on my own. The friends that gave my son the most wonderful summer job and then the other friend who put in a good word for him at his current job. The friend that offered us an unused farm field to plant a garden next year. The friend who stepped up to take lead on an event so it wouldn’t all fall in my lap. The friends that call or email to check in if they haven’t heard from me for a while. The friends we share meals with. The friends I greet with hugs.

Compiling a list of friends for our party was a wonderful discovery; There were over 50 names on it when only 2 short years ago, there were none. The one thing we all have in common? We are all passionate about community. This has given me hope.

While I’ve stepped down from 2 of the committees, new volunteer opportunities come up and new friends are added to my list of potential party guests. As it turns out, the supply of opportunities and friends are endless.

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