Volunteers have been the glue holding many communities and efforts together over the last two and a half weeks. Without people putting their priorities, their jobs and their families on pause, thousands of displaced residents from BC’s interior would be having a much tougher go than they already are.

With thousands of evacuees arriving in my home city of Kamloops BC, I’ve been moved to tears more than once at the resilience of the evacuees themselves and at the generosity of the hundreds of people who have stepped in to lead the way in the early hours and days of chaos.

My admiration and inspiration comes from the people who have been the go-to names for a myriad of logistical and organizational positions even before the support agencies hit the ground running. People in my community have opened their homes, done laundry, delivered toys, walked dogs, and taken shift after shift after shift at the Emergency Evacuation Center.

In time of crisis people rally, but it’s important to remember you (the volunteer) are not the person in crisis–the people you are serving are. Creating a crisis in your own world serves no one in the end.

A 2007 StatsCan study found that 12.5 million volunteers provided 2.1 billion hours of volunteerism in Canada. That is a crazy number of hours! The craziest number out of that study was that the top 25% of volunteers accounted for 78% of total hours of volunteer support! I read that and immediately think of words like, exhaustion, vicarious trauma and burnout.

When you are front-line volunteering in a crisis situation, the desire to help goes far beyond doing something to feel good or give back, and often we overextend ourselves to our own detriment.

You are making a difference. You are needed. It is soul and heart fulfilling to help and I am in no way suggesting you need to stop. I am suggesting, even recommending, that you may need to pull back, set regular hours to volunteer and maintain your own health and sanity. These events are often long, with the need for volunteers lasting months and even years. And that is why you need to check yourself before you wreck yourself.

I’m also going to suggest avoiding volunteering services related to your day job because this will lead to burnout even faster if you never get a break from completing the same types of tasks.

This is why it’s important to realize that sometimes, “no” is a perfectly acceptable answer. Or to get real with yourself on how often you say “yes” when you should be saying the opposite.  

Believing you are the only person who can complete a task or look after a need is the fastest path to burnout. In the high-stress state of a never-ending need, we start to believe that no one other than us can do our “job”. It’s just not true.

There will be others who are willing to step up, be taught and lead with you, but you will have to make room for them to lead with you.

For others, your burnout arrives in emotional overwhelm, it’s like getting off a boat and you still feel it rocking while standing on solid ground. It’s not uncommon for volunteers to feel lonely, isolated and a sense of loss after being involved in an intense situation for days, weeks or months.

Beyond the front-line work, if you want to be a part of the rebuilding, you will need to set boundaries for yourself — how many hours/week, what type of volunteering you will do (mix it up, it a great way to build some new skills and meet new people).

Most importantly, talk to others, debrief your experience — the good, the bad and the ugly. Volunteering should be an experience that adds to your world, not take away from it.

Keep it in balance, protect your energy and you CAN do it all.

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