Volunteers needed: Manitoba organizations struggle to rebuild crews after pandemic pause

Many events and services are restarting after the nearly three-year pandemic hiatus, but leaders are finding an integral component to their success is missing: volunteers.

That shortage has hit Operation Red Nose, the non-profit that helps get people home safely from holiday-season parties.

“I kind of feel like we’re starting from scratch. It’s a big unknown for this year,” said Sharra Hinton, co-ordinator for the service in Winnipeg.

She has cast a wide net with an email plea to “everyone who has ever volunteered with Operation Red Nose before,” and has managed to sign up about 140 volunteers for the service, which begins this year on Nov. 25 and runs through most Fridays and Saturdays until New Year.

While that sounds like an impressive number, Hinton needs about 650.

“So we’ll keep building on this, day after day, and and just keep looking for volunteers,” Hinton said.

Operation Red Nose volunteers head into a pub during the Christmas holiday in Winnipeg. (CBC)

Teams of three volunteers respond to ride requests from people who have driven to an event but are too intoxicated to drive home. Two volunteers drive the client home in the client’s own vehicle. while the third volunteer follows in the Operation Red Nose vehicle.

About 10 teams are used on the first weekend but the demand grows closer to Christmas and New Year’s Eve when there are about 25-30 teams working at night. 

Organizers plan for each three-person team to give about five rides per evening, but the number can swell to twice that. In a typical season there are about 1,100 to 1,200 rides provided.

That means anywhere from 650 to 900 volunteer spots need to be filled, depending on how many nights the service runs each season, Hinton says .

However, the service hasn’t been offered since the 2019 season, which means there is no standard to base anything on this year.

“This is kind of the first testing waters to see where things are at,” Hinton said. “I don’t know how busy we’ll be as far as client requests for rides or for volunteers.

“We’ve built on this over the last 25 years and we’ve had a number of people who come out year after year, night after night and help us. But now with a two-year hiatus, it’s a little bit like starting over.”

Hinton remains optimistic she can round up enough people to make the service work fluidly this season.

“We may have to look a little harder at finding those volunteers this year. But I think we can find people, remind them of what Operation Red Nose is and remind them how much fun they’ve had volunteering with us before,” she said.

“And it’s not just us here in Winnipeg. I think there are nine other [red nose] operations running around the province too. So we’re all kind of in the same boat rebuilding this again.”

The Manitoba Choral Association is singing a similar tune. The MCA is holding Choral Fest, its annual gathering of choirs later this month, for the first time in person since 2019.

The nine-day event usually sees about 150 choirs — up to 6,000 singers — performing. But that number will be significantly lower this year as many choirs only recently began singing again and aren’t ready, MCA executive director Jenny Steinke-Magnus told CBC Manitoba Information Radio host Marcy Markusa.

“This is our 36th year and we’ve never really had problems attracting choirs and volunteers in the past. [But] the pandemic affected choirs quite a bit,” she said. “For a couple of years now, we haven’t really been able to gather and sing together because singing was deemed a risky activity with spreading COVID.”

The nine-day Choral Fest usually sees about 150 choirs — up to 6,000 singers — performing in front of adjudicators, but this year there is a shortage of both choirs and volunteers. (CBC)

School choirs haven’t been singing for two years so they don’t have that performance background like they would normally, from year to year, Steinke-Magnus says, adding she is concerned for the future of school choirs.

The MCA has teachers who have said they would love to bring their choir to choral fest but budget cuts mean they need to be more selective about what they do.

“So that’s really disappointing to hear. With MCA, we really are trying to advocate for choirs and choral programs to be reinstated or even built in schools,” she said.

About 100 choirs are signed up for this year’s event but that doesn’t change the need for volunteers, who are also in short supply. The MCA recently put a call out for help to make the event go smoothly.

Despite fewer choirs, the same number of volunteers are needed for things such as registration, tickets, snack setup and cleanup, and choir ushers — people who lead choirs to and from the stage.

“As you can imagine there’s lots of things happening … and those volunteers really help us to stay on time,” Steinke-Magnus said.

There are about 100 volunteer slots in all and about half are filled, she says.

At least a dozen volunteers are needed each day, and people can sign up for a morning or afternoon slot or for a full day.

Choral Fest runs Nov. 14-23 at two venues. The first week is at Prairie Spirit United Church and the final three days at Canadian Mennonite University.

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