Off the Record: Through thick and thin: the role of volunteerism in our community

Jesse Murton, Derek Schumann and I coached together on the Whistler Saints Football teams for the last four years.  

Last Wednesday was our first practice. I didn’t call Jesse to remind him; I didn’t have to. He always knew where and when to show up.

He’d roll up in his piece of junk truck, and the kids would completely abandon whatever we were doing at practice and run to the parking lot screaming, “Jesse is here…. Jesse is here!”

Practice was always way more fun when Jesse was there. I thought it was strange that Jesse wasn’t there for the first practice — but I wasn’t worried. Then I got the call from coach Schumann later in the evening saying that Jesse had died.

It’s pretty rare to have a 24 year old call you to ask if they can coach football with you, giving up two evenings a week. Rarer still is unflinchingly giving up Sunday morning to drive two hours to Vancouver for kickoff, but Jesse was there, coffee in one hand clipboard in the other, ready to coach.

I’m always amazed at the volunteer culture in Whistler, and Jesse was a shining example. April 23 to 29 was National Volunteer Week, and it got me thinking about volunteerism and the institutions and organizations they support and how they, in turn shape our communities.

When, at their best, our organizations and institutions can be what New York Times columnist David Brooks describes as a “thick institution” in his recent editorial, “How to Leave a Mark on People.”

According to Brooks “a thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul.”

Brooks attributes several hallmarks that would make an institution thick including: close physical proximity — think tackling, collective rituals, formal drills and formations —shared tasks that involve closely watching one another, distinct jargon and phrases. If you haven’t played football you likely have no idea what an 18 QB Sweep is, but football has heroes, hero stories and a collective ideal.  

What struck me was members of these intuitions or organizations know they have something important in common. It’s like a secret hand shake, without the esoteric intonation. I’ve felt these common denominators only rarely with things I’ve been part of. They include being Roman Catholic (when you meet another Catholic you know you’ve shared the same sacraments) and working as a level four ski instructor, celebrating when a new member achieves that goal because they understand its difficulty, strapping on a helmet and doing battle on the gridiron. When you meet someone — even a stranger — who’s shared your experiences, you have an instant bond.

When people have been a member of a thick organization, they tend to reflect on that time as a better version of themselves brought out by their involvement. Organizations like these harness people’s desire to do good and strive for a higher meaning. When I asked Jesse why he wanted to coach he said, “I’m grateful for what football has taught me, and I just want to give something back.”

What more could you ask for — or want? If Jesse’s example has taught me one thing it’s that volunteerism can be the common thread, the shared experience that binds us as citizens so that we can collectively serve the same higher good.

Ralph Forsyth is an entrepreneur, ski instructor, and a football coach. He served as a Whistler councillor from 2005 to 2011 He’s not sure if winning is the only thing or everything or if it’s not important whether you win or lose, but he knows he hates losing more than he loves winning.

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