‘I want to be optimistic, but we are on the verge of extinction’

As the province is faced with an aging population and an economic downturn, the future of rural Newfoundland’s volunteer base is uncertain.

Editor’s note: This story is part of a continuing series by student journalists Abigail Chippett and Kyle Greenham on aging communities in rural Newfoundland.

Kyle Greenham
Kicker

In the small community of Riverhead, with only 155 residents, Mayor Sheila Lee says without their volunteer base, the town would not survive.

“If we didn’t have volunteers in rural Newfoundland, we’d all have to move out,” Lee said. “Volunteers are the lifeline of the community.”

Lee has been a leading figure in Riverhead’s volunteer community for several years. She was involved in town projects like the formation of a recycling depot, fitness centre and library now located in a building that was originally set to be abandoned.

After the closure of Riverhead’s school, Lee convinced the archdiocese to sell the property to the town for $1. Then she helped turn the school into a building for town council offices, board meetings and chambers, as well as a storage space and office for Riverhead’s volunteer fire department.

“I think to have a strong community, it’s really important to have groups working together for common goals,” Lee said. “Just this summer, we had five different groups get together and we had our own Chase the Ace which grossed over $500,000.”

The winner of the contest took home $290,000 while the rest went to the legion and the fitness centre.”

Mayor Sheila Lee has been a leading figure in Riverhead’s volunteer community for several years. She was involved in town projects like the creation of a recycling depot, fitness centre and library now located in a building that was originally set to be abandoned. Kyle Greenham/Kicker

Craig Pollett is the CEO of Municipalities of Newfoundland and Labrador. He says particularly in this province, volunteering is essential.

“Many of the municipal councils in rural communities did not form till the mid-sixties; many of them formed simply for the purpose of flowing provincial money into the community,” Pollett said. “If the community needed to build a road or a drinking water system, then the province needed an entity that would receive the money and put it in a bank account.”

Because of that, Pollett says, municipalities have not had strong tools for generating revenue.

“They’ve had property taxes but not a heck of a lot more. They haven’t raised much money in terms of what it costs to actually deliver services,” he said. “So a lot of councils in our province are volunteer, while in other provinces most municipal councils are paid.

“Because fire departments started so early, many of them before the formation of councils and tax systems, they’re almost all volunteer based.”

Pollett says with aging populations being a problem in most rural areas, as well as Newfoundland and Labrador’s current economic difficulties, many communities struggle to fill volunteer positions.

“There’s going to be a lot of communities that will have to plan and be a part of a regional economy,” he said. “Commuting, having to drive one or two hours to and from work each day, is going to become a much more common sight in a few years.”

Lee hopes that Riverhead can maintain its population and volunteer base. If not, she says her town may soon become “cabin country”.

“I’m very fearful over our future,” Lee said. “I want to be optimistic, but we are on the verge of extinction.”
“We have so few young people. If only we could be able to get the word out there and let young people know that rural Newfoundland is not so bad a place to come make your home and raise your family. If we could get more young families here, there are lots of things we could plan for the community.”

Still, with the few resources and people it has, Riverhead has managed to thrive in its own way. For the past two years, Riverhead has hosted annual volunteer appreciation events for all the various work that is done in the community. Lee says of the town’s 155 residents, 80 are active volunteers.

“If we had wages for all the things people volunteer for out here, we would never ever be able to come up with the money needed,” she said. “They’re invaluable; they’re worth their weight in gold.”

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