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Celebrating Whistler's volunteers, the heart of the resort

National Volunteer Week is April 7 to 13

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When asked what has kept longtime local and volunteer Cliff Jennings coming back, week after week, to lend a hand at the Whistler Food Bank for nearly a decade, his answer was simple: "I can't say no to my daughter."

Jennings' answer holds some truth considering his daughter, Sara, has run the local food bank for years now, but there's no denying the spirit of philanthropy in the Jennings' family. Cliff is a founder of Whistler Search and Rescue, a volunteer-led organization that he gave 27 years to, and his wife, Vivien, a former Citizen of the Year, spearheaded an annual clothing drive out of her Whistler Cay home that was a direct precursor to the Re-Use-It Centre.

In such a privileged town, it's important to take every opportunity to highlight the many volunteers like Jennings that form the backbone of the community. And with National Volunteer Week set for April 7 to 13, Pique spoke to a number of local organizations that rely on volunteerism to do the work they do.

Jackie Dickinson, executive director of the Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS), which operates the food bank, the Re-Use-It and Re-Build-It centres, as well as a range of social programs, said the organization was founded on the work and expertise of volunteers.

"We have volunteers at WCSS, through our food bank program, who have been around longer than the most senior people in our organization," she explained. "They literally have passed down the knowledge for us to understand how this program has worked and how it will continue to work. We have volunteers who have been working for us every Monday for the past 20 years. It's unbelievable."

Among the many local organizations on the constant lookout for volunteers is Zero Ceiling, a non-profit dedicated to reducing youth homelessness. Zero Ceiling provides housing, employment and the opportunity to live and play in the mountains for a year through its Work 2 Live program, as well as opportunities for homeless youth from around the region to come to Whistler and experience a day of skiing or snowboarding through its Adventure Sessions.

"It's the best volunteer gig in town," said Sean Easton, Zero Ceiling's co-executive director. "You come up, spend four or five hours with the crew, and beyond just having fun snowboarding, you're part of an experience that these individuals might never have had the option to do. It's been amazing just see these guys light up."

As the resort's largest employer, Whistler Blackcomb also relies on the largest number of volunteers—more than 700—to assist in its operations. Whether patrollers, on-mountain doctors, event staff, mountain safety personnel or the more visible Mountain Hosts, there are a number of ways residents can give back to the engine that makes the resort run.

"To say (volunteers) are critical to what we do, that may be an understatement," said Marc Riddell, WB's communications director. "We couldn't do a lot of the things we do without folks giving up their time to help us give us the best possible experience to our guests each year."

Dickinson believes both Whistler's retired and immigrant community have played significant roles in fostering the resort's active network of volunteers.

"We have a very active retired community that live here, and part of their commitment and role in the community is to volunteer," she says. "But the thing we see a lot of is people coming here with an incredible skillset from other places in the world and the job they may be doing is not a reflection of their schooling, so they want to be involved in organizations like ours as a way to retain some experience and connection to the work they've done. We've had people who were lawyers and nurses in their home countries, people who have come with a tremendous amount of skills. I think that makes us unique compared to anywhere else."

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