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Barb McKay: Volunteering a lifestyle and a team effort

Volunteering couple - Both Barb and Don McKay have given years of political and volunteer service in Puslinch Township and beyond.  photo by Patrick Raftis

Barb McKay: Volunteering a lifestyle and a team effort

by Patrick Raftis

MORRISTON - Why volunteer? Ask Barb McKay.

“It’s fun. It’s rewarding. You get so much more out of volunteering than you ever give,” she states.

And that’s just for starters. Volunteers also enhance their communities, provide help to those who need it most and get to be part of the enriching team atmosphere that pervades most volunteer endeavours.

McKay should know. The outgoing former Puslinch Township councillor, who runs a small beef and sheep farm on the edge of Morriston with her husband Don, a current county councillor and also an active community volunteer, has a lengthy history of altruistic activity with a wide variety of organizations.

Originally from Dundas, McKay “got a feel for Wellington County and Guelph,” while pursuing an undergraduate degree in psychology and sociology at the University of Guelph. Later she attended the University of Toronto obtaining her Masters degree in social work. At the same time, Don, a professional meteorologist whom she married in 1970, was obtaining his PHD at U of T.

McKay had been a child and youth worker before obtaining her Masters, then worked briefly at St. Joseph’s Health Centre after graduation. She later joined the staff of Canada House, in Hamilton where she worked with emotionally disturbed adolescent boys and their families for 27 years.

“We had a bit of an ‘outward bound’ program,” notes McKay.

“We did a lot of canoe trips, hiking and camping trips with the kids - that was part of our philosophy. A lot of the kids came back years later and said ‘that was the best thing,’” she recalls.

McKay’s social work career served as a springboard into one of her most enduring volunteer commitments.

In 1987, she became involved with Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis (GWWC) and was a part of the expansion of the agency’s Rural Women’s Support Program (now known as the Shelter Program) into Puslinch.

The volunteers’ role involved educating the community about the need for help with women who are experiencing domestic violence, McKay explained.

They also provided support for women through the program by being “phone friends,” and accompanying them to court or other appointments.

“Basically helping people is social work, so I felt I had some skills that I could help them on a volunteer basis. My social work skills in terms of empathy and listening and problem solving were helpful in that volunteer role.”

McKay feels her social work skills helped her to deal with the potentially-stressful experience of dealing with victims of violence.

“You have to keep a level mind,” she notes.

Talking to local groups to attract donations to the program was another part of the volunteers’ role in the support program. It’s something that became a theme for McKay with various groups.

“I enjoy meeting people and I enjoy helping agencies progress by getting funds.

“And unfortunately, in today’s environment, all agencies need to do their own fundraising ... for anything beyond the basic services,” she explained.

“And I enjoy going to fundraisers. Don and I go to a lot of charity events.”

McKay believes programs like those offered through the GWWC, while needed everywhere, are particularly vital outside urban areas.

“Domestic violence in rural environments is much more complicated for the client. There’s much more isolation, much more difficulty in getting to appointments,” she said, adding that part of the fundraising was to allow the agency to provide clients with rides to appointments.

McKay worked as a support program volunteer for about nine years, before taking a break, but continued to be involved with the agency through attending fundraising events.

“In every volunteer position that I’ve had, there’s a time when you need to step back,” she noted.

Her hiatus from the group was short-lived, as about six years ago, “at a different age and stage” in her life, she took advantage of an opportunity be become a member of GWWC board of directors, where one of her roles became, of course, fundraising for a cause she feels is extremely important.

“Unfortunately domestic violence is something that’s very present in all communities in all social/economic groups, in all cultures and there’s a real need for all oppressed women and children to have some support. The hope is to stop the cycle of violence in communities.”

McKay was a Puslinch Township councillor for nine years and a Wellington County councillor for four. While on Puslinch council, she became a part of the community’s original Community Oriented Policing (COP) committee.  In some ways, the COP appointment was a natural extension of both her political role and her volunteer experience.

“It basically covered a lot of issues. Certainly domestic violence was one, but in this community they were certainly concerned about traffic, [Highway 6] in particular.”

McKay said the COP committee provides an important link between citizens, police and politicians.

“People could bring issues that they had to this committee and the committee could advocate on issues in the community.”

She also volunteered with the local Special Olympics committee for five years, helping athletes with special needs achieve their goals and has participated in two Habitat for Humanity projects – one women’s build and one to build an accessible house.    

For over 10 years, ending in 2012, McKay was part of the Friends of Mill Creek, another initiative that involved council, as well as a group of “unlikely” collaborators, including representatives of the gravel and water industries, the local community, politicians, environmental advocates, the Ministry of Environment and the University of Guelph.

“It’s a group of people who basically do projects in the community that enhance the quality of the water and improves Mill Creek.”

One such project was the establishment of the Mill Creek Ranger program, which allows students to work for a summer on environmental improvement work.

“They hire students in summer with crew leader from the GRCA and do field and stream work to enhance the quality of the water – making healthy streams basically,” says McKay, who, naturally, was on the fundraising committee for the Ranger program.

“Corporations were very generous – they could see the value of getting youth out working a project that’s going to help the environment.

“Some of the parents were saying it’s the best summer job their kids ever had,” said McKay, adding, “A lot of these kids go on to study environmental science and environmental engineering.”

While much of her volunteer work has been locally-based, McKay also pitches in on a global basis.

“To anyone who every has a chance to be an international volunteer, they should do it. It’s life changing in lot of ways to go to a developing country and help out.”

McKay has made seven trips with various organizations to Central and South American locations.

She says her work with Medical Ministry International has been among the most rewarding.

“I’ve been on medical and dental missions but I’ve also been on eye missions as well.

“I find the eye missions the most fulfilling,” said McKay, who’s role in these trips is as a “general helper” as she has no medical experience or qualifications.

Her most recent trip, to the Amazon basin, involved 92 volunteers, including 12 doctors and five optometrists working out of a school complex, but with access to a hospital, the group performed 180 cataract surgeries and 75 treatments for people with a condition that causes crossed eyes and gave out 5,000 pair of used glasses.

“On the eye missions you can see immediate change. Someone gets glasses and they can see and read. It’s just so fulfilling to see that immediate help you can give - and really with not a lot of cost factor,” says McKay, who primarily worked booking appointments with help of a translator.

“They used my organizational skills,” she noted.

McKay says the people receiving such services are “so, so grateful” for help with,  “things that we take for granted - that we can go and get a pair of glasses and we can see, or the cataract surgery as well. If we hadn’t come they wouldn’t have got it.”

Because the communities in the region are so remote, the arrival of the mission groups is communicated through radio station and spread by pastors to outlying regions.

But somehow, those who need the treatment get the word.

“Three brothers came down the river for three days on the little putt, putt boats that they have there,” to receive treatment, she said.

McKay has been on seven international volunteer missions and states, “I’m planning on going more. I really enjoy them.

“The people themselves were just so wonderful.”

For McKay, volunteering is a lifestyle that has come naturally, “a family trait” she picked up form her parents who believed in helping out whenever possible.

Even her recreational pastimes sometimes involve an element of volunteerism. An avid bridge player, she also participates in instructional games, which allow beginners to learn the finer points of the game in an environment where it’s okay to ask questions.

It’s something she recommends for everyone, regardless of their situation.

When she stepped away from politics in 2010, McKay realized she wanted to spend more time travelling and volunteering.

She realizes not everyone is in the position to make large time commitments, but notes there are many ways to become involved.

“It’s good to take part in these one-day volunteering opportunities that are available at things like the Special Olympics, or selling daffodils (for the Canadian Cancer Society),” she points out. “For some people, it’s a great way to get a feel for volunteering.”

Being part of a volunteer organization, she explains, enriches not only the lives of those receiving assistance, but those that participate.

“Volunteering is not an individual thing,” she said. “It’s a team effort. It’s a beautiful thing.”


September 6, 2013


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