Good ol Tom Sawyer

Many literary works stand the test of time. Great works have enduring messages about life that suggest much of what we are going through today has been seen before.

One of our favourite old stories is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. The boyhood romance of cruising the mighty Mississippi River and hearing the call of the ship’s big horn across the bay with its paddles thrashing in the water was part of an incredible tale. Twain had a way with words and ideas.

Within that novel is a chapter about white-washing a fence. Sawyer’s punishment was to paint a fence for his old Aunt Polly. Realizing the chore to be hard work, Tom gets the idea to trick some friends into doing his work for him. In an “aw shucks” manner, he entices passersby with how much fun it is to paint a fence and, very reluctantly, he hands off the brush so friends can try. Soon thereafter everyone is working on the fence he was to paint, as Sawyer stands by munching an apple and watching the work proceed.

Although that comedic interlude is from a book written over 130 years ago, the concept rings true today. Some call it natural-born leadership, maybe maximizing people-power and yet others call it for what it is – duping people into doing a job for free.

There are many good groups that honour the trust they have with volunteers. Whether a food bank, service club, Sports teams, helping at a child’s school, leading Scouts or Guides, driving for cancer, Meals on Wheels etc. – people who volunteer make a difference. Arguably programs would not get off the ground if it were not for the many who give up time to help a cause they believe in. Often they will be coordinated by paid staff at some level, but most of those groups have a great approach to honouring volunteers.

Part of our Inside Wellington coverage this week includes a feature on volunteering. Volunteer Week runs from April 15 to 21, but as we have noted, there are many groups that celebrate the many helping hands that make their programs a success all year long. It is not a stretch to suggest that the cost to non-profit groups in paid labour would leave some programs unaffordable. That is a sad fact.

There are times, too, when rules and procedures get in the way of volunteer efforts.

This week for example, Guelph-Eramosa Township was approached to provide garbage bags for roadside clean-up by a resident there. Instead of paving the way for a good deed, road blocks were thrown up about liability issues with giving out bags and the contents of said bags being of concern when picked up.

Similarly, most townships and towns have faced challenges in channelling volunteer efforts. Good ideas often meet with resistance, whether that be clean-up days or volunteer groups who raise money being forced to pay market rents for facilities like fair grounds or arenas. If there ever was a sure way to drown volunteerism, making the exercise frustrating and difficult is the quickest way.

That is why we have struggled with the News that Mayor Ray Tout of Wellington North received $8,900 for helping when the Sandy Lake natives were evacuated to Arthur last year.

We understand there are some hurt feelings with volunteers who gave of their time to help without pay. Other well-intentioned groups were turned away, like people offering to cook meals for the guests who fled their homes in Sandy Lake. Rules would not allow serving a community-based meal like the ones many residents here happily buy a ticket for, whether it be an annual turkey or beef supper.

In an interview with our reporter, Tout suggested the compensation he received was a matter of the province deciding since he was the top guy on site he needed to be enriched accordingly. Other county and township staff seconded to the mission had their wages reimbursed too, which is just and right, as per the agreements with the federal government and province in dealing with emergency situations like this one.

Perhaps the misgivings with Tout’s pay is part of a larger resentment that has been building up in recent years.

As volunteers do more and community groups do more with less, local government – specifically politicians – get more and do less for free.