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HEALTH CONNECTION

Volunteers make an impact on mental health

By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun


For 24-year-old graphic designer Ehrin Albright, Monday night is probably the best night of the week. That's because she has the opportunity to relax with people she cares about and do some painting, beading, or working with clay.
"I leave and think that no other two hours in my week have been as good and positive for so many people," says Ehrin Albright, who volunteers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.


The people she spends time with on Monday nights are residents of the integrated rehabilitation unit at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health on Queen Street. Albright is one of the centre's volunteers and she organizes a weekly arts and crafts program.

"There's not a lot for residents to do in the evenings, and it gets really boring just watching TV, so they love doing arts and crafts," Albright explains. "You can see in their eyes how happy they are when we arrive on Monday nights."

This week is National Volunteering Week -- a time to celebrate the contribution people like Albright make to society. Today there are about 6.5 million volunteers in the country -- and 20% of them work in the health sector.

The opportunities are extensive. Some volunteers work one-on-one with patients in hospitals. Others may work on a reception desk of a health-issue organization like The Cancer Society. Still others deliver meals on wheels or read stories to sick children.

According to Volunteer Canada, up to 90% of all health-care volunteers have had some contact with the particular health issue they're working on. For instance, some former cancer patients volunteer to help new patients through the trials of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

For young people, volunteering in the health-care industry may be part of career development according to Paddy Bowen, President of Volunteer Canada. "They're trying to find out, for instance, whether they want to go into nursing or physiotherapy," Brown says.

Bowen also points out that there are very different types of volunteering. Up to 40% of all volunteers in Canada sit on boards and advisories, managing Canada's health institutions.

"Most health institutions are governed by unpaid volunteers," Bowen says. "This is a very different kind of contribution. There are issues around risk management, liability and transparency. There's a huge responsibility for large budgets."

She explains that boards need members from all backgrounds. They may need doctors, lawyers and accountants, but they're also looking for ordinary people "because they're capable and bring a rich perspective." Many boards are looking for young people too.

"The old stereotype of Lady Bountiful wheeling a trolley of books around the hospital halls isn't really true anymore," Bowen says. "And the governance thing is really important. People are really needed to guide these organizations."

Ehrin Albright would prefer to work with people than policy, and she gets a real buzz out of her volunteer work.

"It's so rewarding on so many levels. I leave and think that no other two hours in my week have been as good and positive for so many people," she says.

After two years of volunteering at the Centre for Addition and Mental Health she's even considering entering the health-care industry professionally in the future.

"I would consider becoming a recreation therapist," she explains. "Right now, I don't deal with their medical issues. I'm just there to be a friend. But we have recreation therapists who take them on trips and plan events. That's something I'd really like to do."

For more information on the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, visit www.camh.net, and for more information on volunteering, visit www.volunteer.ca.

(Susan Poizner (susan.poizner@sympatico.ca) is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)



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