Vancouver Sun

Giving back can be a very dirty business

Messes aside, it's nice to feel useful, says

- Nicholas Read. Nicholas Read is an author of a children's book and a former Vancouver Sun reporter.

Since retiring five years ago, I've been volunteeri­ng at two animal shelters, one for parrots, the other for cats. This makes me a cliché because volunteeri­ng is what retired people do. They also travel, golf, or if they have them (I don't), they spoil their grandchild­ren. I volunteer.

The work I do is repetitive, physical and dirty. If I were employed in a 1910 Edwardian manor, I'd be a scullery maid removing ash from fireplaces and bodily fluids from sheets. I am in constant contact with parrot and cat feces, and in constant peril of being pecked by the parrots and scratched by the cats. Neither has the least compunctio­n about biting the hands that feed them.

I do it because 1) It needs to be done; 2) I love animals; 3) It gives my week some structure; 4) I like the people I work with as much as I like the animals; and 5) It gives me a glimpse of how hard the working lives of people less fortunate than I was, can be. And yes, it's nice to feel useful, even if in the grand scheme of things what I do amounts to one of those tiny mosquito-bite-like mounds that clams leave when they bury themselves in the sand.

Never mind, we can't all be Jesus. Actually, I've been volunteeri­ng since the 1980s. My first job was exercising dogs at the SPCA where, like New York City postmen, I ran them around an adjacent park in snow, rain, heat and gloom of night — depending on the time of year. Christmas, too, because what did the dogs know from Santa? Only that he'd missed their chimneys.

I also taught English to new Canadians, handed out sandwiches to people on the Downtown Eastside — my only non-animal gigs — and drove orphaned and injured wildlife to a rescue centre in Langley.

However, while all these jobs have been somewhat distinctiv­e (apart from the excrement), a single theme has run through all of them. No matter the place, the work, the challenge or the danger (the DTES job was no picnic), there were always more women helping than men. I'd put the ratio at four to one, but it turns out I'd be wrong. The United Nations calls it 60/40 worldwide (even with humanity's profound gender disparitie­s), while StatCan reports 44 per cent of Canadian women volunteer compared with 38 per cent of men.

Obviously, the nature of my volunteer experience has skewed my perception­s unfairly. Nothing new about that. I've never been a Big Brother or a sports coach. I've never rescued anyone. I've also never sat on a board or helped organize a major event. All activities usually

In the end, all that counts is that we give back at least some of what we've received.

associated with men. For some reason, I've always been content to shovel s--t.

So why the difference? The accepted view is that women are more caring than men, and since a lot of volunteer work requires patience, compassion and understand­ing (traits men aren't generally known for), it follows that volunteers for this routine and largely unheralded kind of work are predominan­tly women.

Conversely, in a traditiona­l patriarchy (i.e. most of the world) men are accustomed to receiving if not outright praise for their efforts, then at least some acknowledg­ment or thanks. Consider how much rich men love having their names inscribed on buildings. Coaching fits this paradigm too, in that it confers power and authority on the coach and demands respect from his team. Similarly rescue work. The rescuers are deservedly hailed as heroes.

Then there's the notion of learning by example. Although this has undergone a major shift in the last half-century, an atavistic part of us still expects men and women to excel at different things. Hence the ongoing need to steer some girls toward STEM and some boys to being gentle.

But does the difference matter? Initially, I would have said yes, but now I wonder. Surely, in the end, all that counts is that we give back at least some of what we've received. And as they say, different strokes for different folks. Thus, if anything is clear in this anything but clearcut debate, it's probably that.

Meantime, if you've always dreamed of having a screeching metre-long macaw balance on your arm or shoulder, there's a place in Delta that can promise to make your dream come true.

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