Address to convocation by Dr. Jean Bruneau



(October 29, 1998)

Thank you, Dr. Staveley, for that generous introduction. I am overwhelmed by your kind remarks and confess that I am both humbled and astonished to be receiving this honour. My thanks also to the Senate of Memorial University for this recognition.

On a very personal note, I would like to acknowledge some of the people who have greatly enhanced my volunteer experience over the years. Incidentally, this little exercise gives me a bit more sympathy for those often breathless and gushy people at the Academy Awards ceremony as they try to include everybody who has ever helped them in their careers! God I have already thanked, morning and night over the years, for many things.

My special thanks to Peter Gardner of the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, who has taught me to really listen to music and understand its contribution to our culture and our souls; to many patient and respectful lawyers at the Law Society who have endured endless questions and probing from this lay person; and to the many wonderful paid staff people with whom I have worked and continue to work, who support the concept of staff/volunteer partnership as a way of work. To my Christian upbringing which taught me, amongst other things, that "it is always the right time to do the right thing." But most of all I want to thank my dear family. They are here today and I am thrilled to publicly say thank you for all your loving support — my sons, Peter, Ian and Stephen and also their wives Meridith, Jill and Mary and especially my husband, Angus.

I did actually spend some time thinking about the appropriateness of accepting this honourary degree, knowing that family members all walked across this stage at various times to get their degrees, as did all of you graduates today in receiving your degrees, after years of courses, labs, research projects, papers, seminars, exams, dissertations, deadlines, etc. not to mention student loans and other personal and family sacrifices necessary to bring this occasion to fruition. This has not exactly been the route that has brought me here today. However, with the understanding (or rationalization) that I represent a sizable segment of society i.e. the volunteer sector, I am pleased to join you in that capacity. I also welcome the opportunity to speak to you briefly, knowing from about 30 years of attending convocations that the operative word here is "brief." I recently read the comment that, "The role of a graduation speaker is similar to the role played by a body at a funeral. They cannot hold the event without one, but nobody expects you to say very much."

My fellow graduates, even as we celebrate and offer congratulations to you on achieving this milestone in your productive and busy lives, I cannot resist also offering encouragement that you keep on being learners, remembering the caution that, "A little learning is not a dangerous thing to one who does not mistake it for a great deal."

The following observations and challenges are born in large part out of my 30 years of personal volunteer involvement and are offered with a sense of gratitude for all that those experiences have given to me.

My first participation in a volunteer organization occurred shortly after we came here as a result of a suggestion from a new friend, Mary Andrews.

She recommended that I go to the YWCA (as it then was) in order to meet new people. I followed her advice, joined an exercise class down at the YWCA at 55 Military Road, and enjoyed it immensely. One day the Executive Director at that time, Marjorie Ball, came and asked me if I would be interested in joining a discussion group for four evenings. I was intrigued. "No strings attached." she said. I believed her, I agreed to participate and, of course, I was hooked. Both the National YMCA and YWCA, and our own amalgamated YM/YWCA in St. John's, have subsequently meant a great deal to me over the years and I have benefited enormously from my association with them. That was the beginning of my volunteer career and I have never looked back.

I know that there are reasons not to be involved in volunteer activities, including personal lifestyle considerations. There is also a certain apprehension of being seen as having an ulterior motive. Some even say it is done for personal gain, for recognition, to ingratiate oneself, for power etc. Ignore the "naysayers" and doubters of this world, they will consume your energy and time. Personally, I am less interested in motives (I cannot read thoughts or hearts) than the fruits of the spirit. Go with your own best instincts. Besides, there is a Talmudic principle which says "A man should perform a righteous deed even if he does so for ulterior motives, because he will thus learn to do the right thing for its own sake."

Citizens like you and me want and need to feel that we can make a difference, that we can change things for the better. Some feel this is not possible, that the wheels of government, industry and society grind on in some inexorable course regardless of what anyone does, no matter how well motivated. Not so! We all have it in our grasp to make a difference to one person and that is how change occurs — one person at a time. "Nobody makes a bigger mistake," says Edmund Burke, "than doing nothing because they can only do a little." Whether one accomplishes this through the activities of a non-profit organization or as an individual, the attitude required to take action for good is the same.  Victor Frankl said that, "The last of the human freedoms is to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances."

I am reminded of an occasion a number of years ago when an anonymous donor provided sufficient funds to my son's school to allow a deserving student who did not otherwise have the necessary means to participate in an educational school tour of Europe. The  boy chosen by the principal would never have been able to go had this support not been available, as his mother was struggling to raise her six children alone. He is an adult today, with his own family, and he and his mother have never forgotten that generous act. I hope the secret donor still smiles to himself/herself 23 years later. That was a voluntary, individual act of kindness — those opportunities are always available to us for those who prefer to see their charitable and generous activities close to home. The idea behind the tiny flower is that it really doesn't matter how small you are, whether in size or numbers. It doesn't matter how much you know, how skilled you are, how much education or what credentials you have. What really matters is how you affect the world around you.

Today, volunteers come in all ages, colours, shapes and sizes, and various social environments, belief systems, cultures and motives. They are people who understand the symbolism of that great scene in Gulliver's Travels where the tiny pygmies are able to immobilize the giant by tying him down with thousands of little strands drawn across his body. Each thread alone would not have been sufficient, but all working together, each adding their small contribution, allowed them to achieve their goal. I imagine in this audience today there are people representing many different volunteer activities: work with youth-serving agencies, conservation groups, health-care organizations, sport governing bodies, advocacy groups, self-help groups, disaster relief agencies, heritage preservation groups, emergency response agencies, education bodies, advisory boards and committees for professional bodies, political associations and unions, church work, street rescue missions, food banks, arts and cultural groups and many, many others, as well as those countless random acts of kindness that occur every day. You all know the truth of the words of Sir Wilfred Grenfell, who spent a lifetime helping the people of Labrador when he said, "Real joy comes not from ease or riches or the praise of men but from doing something worthwhile."

Some final observations, in no particular order of importance, as a volunteer.
 

My past 30 years of volunteer activity has taught me many things about my community, my country and myself. I learned that multitudes of people require help, not just because of fire, flood and war, but because of heredity, culture and social environment. Great burdens sometimes fall on people who are not equipped either physically or mentally or economically to carry them. It could be any one of us.

While I sought to serve others, I, in turn, was comforted; while I learned to lead, I came to understand partnership; while I advocated for change, my own understanding was challenged and broadened. In every way the opportunity to give voluntarily of myself  has lead to a greater sense of responsibility and self-worth.

There are in this world hundreds of things which are right but which cannot be legislated for, things which will never be done unless someone is prepared to volunteer to do them. It is vital that the work of community and international volunteer agencies and individual volunteer activities be valued, maintained and supported in our increasingly complex and often fractured world. Won't you join us, please. We need you. We need each other.

My best personal wishes to you all for continued success in all you do. May you live fulfilled and happy lives and may you do it with passion.

Thank you.