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The reluctant volunteer

Joan Watt came into the Prince George Council of Seniors office two years ago with her arms crossed, a frown on her face and an grumpy attitude. She smiles about it now when she talks about it. She had never volunteered for anything before.
Joan Watt is a volunteer with the Friendly Phone Calls program at Prince George Council of Seniors.

Joan Watt came into the Prince George Council of Seniors office two years ago with her arms crossed, a frown on her face and an grumpy attitude.

She smiles about it now when she talks about it.

She had never volunteered for anything before.

Her life had been very quiet and consisted of reading, gardening and enjoying time with her husband.

"I enjoyed his company and we didn't have friends outside of each other," Watt said. "And we were quite happy."

Things changed when husband Ken was diagnosed with dementia and Watt was his sole caregiver for 10 years.

"My nieces and nephews had a nickname for me," Watt said. "They called me Auntie Social. I didn't go to family reunions or anything. I didn't socialize at all."

When caring for Ken became too much seven years ago, Watt made the hard decision to place him in care and they found their way to Simon Fraser Lodge, where Ken still resides to this day.

When the staff at Simon Fraser Lodge and her family encouraged her to go outside of her comfort zone, they suggested she go to the Council of Seniors.

"When I first got there I was pretty much mad at the world," Watt said. "I think there was some depression there, although I wasn't going to admit it at the time."

Most volunteers are happy to be at the place they've chosen to volunteer.

"Joan came in with her arms crossed, and said 'I don't want to be here, I've got nothing to offer you and you've got nothing to give me so let's just get this interview over with'," Lola-Dawn Fennell, the general manager at the seniors council office, said with a smile of recollection.

Fennell immediately got Watt in the Friendly Phone Calls program where those who would like to have someone check in with them on a weekly basis can sign up. The program is an ideal outreach for those seniors who are isolated or shut in.

"It was the Friendly Phone Calls clients that got her," Fennell said.

Once a week, Watt comes into the office's resource centre, puts her list of about a dozen people to call in front of her and starts dialing.

"And then we have a chat," Watt said. "Well, I listen and they talk. Sometimes you have to prompt them a little bit but they like to talk and they just want someone to listen to them."

By the second week, Joan was worried about a person she couldn't reach by phone during her regularly scheduled phone calls. It turned out the person was just fine but before Watt knew that she came back into the centre to see if anyone else had heard from that person.

"And then we knew she was hooked," Fennell said about Watt's dedication to her volunteering duties.

"And I didn't realize that I had the potential to do anything like that," Watt said. "I was very comfortable in my old life but the rug had been pulled out from under me and I had to change gears. You have to readjust or go under. But I had a lot of help, particularly here (PGCOS)."

Fennell said when Watt came in with her arms folded, it was a challenge she just couldn't resist.

"You have to put yourself out there but it takes work," Watt said. "I had to fight through a lot of it. Just coming down here for the first time, I could've talked myself out of it so easily."

Watt walked by the resource centre a couple of times before she found the courage to cross the threshold.

"I had to force myself and you have to force yourself, particularly when your life has been pulled out from under you," Watt said. "That's a real challenge. You have to figure out which way to go and you can let the whole thing take you down and I've seen it happen but again I give credit to a lot of people - I have a lot of support and that's huge."

Volunteering is never a one-way street, Fennell said.

"I feel like I've gained more than I've given," Watt said. "Absolutely and you do gain - you gain a lot and I think about that every time someone says thank you for the call. I think I should be thanking you because it's made a huge difference and it's the Friendly Phone Calls that did that."

Watt has taken on more volunteer roles that she didn't even know she had the capability to do, she added.

"You challenged yourself and you have grown as a result of that," Fennell said.

Watt took on a research project to provide historical highlights that were shared during the Council of Seniors 25th anniversary celebration in 2015.

"And I loved it," Watt said. "Volunteering didn't change me but it brought me back to who I always was. I've always been very confident and very assured of myself but I think the situation with my husband took a lot out of me, as it does with caregivers."

Watt also works on the front desk at the centre, greeting patrons as they come in, answering phone calls and providing information to those who need it, as that is the main function of of the seniors resource centre. Watt also does general office duties.

"And I am the volunteer volunteer coordinator," Watt added.

She keeps track of all the volunteer hours it takes to run the resource centre.

Right now there are several volunteers needed for a variety of duties including for the Friendly Phone Calls program.

Volunteers are asked to come in once a week for a couple of hours to chat on the phone with those seniors who just need someone to talk to for a short time on a regular basis.

"It needs to be a faithful commitment of once a week for a couple of hours because the people at the other end of the phone really come to rely on that call," Fennell said.

Meals on Wheels is also a once-a-week commitment of about two hours.

"We're needing drivers to deliver the meals," Watt said. Those who wish to volunteer for those duties also need to be prepared to honour the commitment because those who are using the service are depending on receiving that meal on a regular basis, Watt added.

On the wishlist for the resource centre is for enough volunteers to staff the front desk to allow for extended hours of operation. Right now the centre is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. but ideally Fennell would like to see the hours extended right to 5 p.m. to better serve the community.

Commitment involved there is again once a week for two or three hours. Those who wish to volunteer could also be put on a spare board so that if something does not go as planned and a volunteer is unable to meet their obligation then someone else could replace that person at short notice.

Fennell said it takes outstanding volunteers like Watt to help make the Prince George Council of Seniors a success.

"I look at it as I am rather selfish because this is serving me as well as serving the community," Watt said. "I gain more than I've given and I maintain that."