Working with Volunteers and Students

A volunteer or student can be an invaluable addition to a walking group. They often bring energy, a fresh outlook, specific areas of expertise, and a willingness to learn. Here are some tips for attracting volunteers.

Advertising a Volunteer Position

Writing a job description for a volunteer position will help you to clarify the role you have in mind, and ensure that you attract a volunteer whose expectations align with yours. Many areas have a local volunteer organization that advertises opportunities. Craigslist and Kijiji are two websites where you could advertise a volunteer position at no cost.

Connecting with Colleges and Universities

Students at a local university or college may be interested in becoming part of your group. Joining your group may be part of a rewarding practicum or volunteer experience, or the group may present an opportunity for a special research project. In any case, ensuring that the local college or university is aware of your group may help to increase your group’s impact.

Here are some tips for contacting colleges and universities.

  • Look for students who are likely to benefit from your group experience and bring relevant expertise. Some programs to consider include:
    • Health Sciences
    • Kinesiology
    • Nursing
    • Occupational Therapy
    • Physical Therapy
    • Psychology
    • Public Health
    • Recreation Therapy
    • Social Services
    • Social Work
  • When contacting schools, try to connect with the departmental secretary for guidance as to which staff member to contact.
  • It may help to send an introductory email first and offer to follow up with a phone call at a time of their convenience.
  • Many schools also produce a newspaper where you could post an ad for a volunteer.

Here is a sample script to use when contacting schools:

Hello, my name is (name) and I am calling on behalf of (organization). I am calling to inform you about a program our organization is running that may be of interest to your students. Are you familiar with (our organization)?

We are conducting a walking group for people who live with mental health issues. Our group will walk (time and dates). I am interested in discussing how your students might become involved. Our group may be a valuable volunteer, practicum, or research opportunity for your students, while your students could be a valuable support to our group.

Do you think there may be an opportunity for your students to become involved?

Students can be a valuable addition to your group, and including students in your group may be the first step toward developing an ongoing partnership with a local college or university.

Orienting Volunteers and Students

It is essential to gauge volunteers’ understanding of mental illness and comfort level in engaging with people who experience mental health issues. Some mental health organizations provide formal training and orientation for volunteers and students. If your organization does not, some useful topics to cover when orienting volunteers include:

  • The role of a volunteer as part of the group
  • Inclusive communication and appropriate topics to discuss with participants
  • Setting boundaries and sharing personal information
  • How to respond if a participant experiences a physical or psychological crisis
  • How to communicate ideas or concerns following a group walk or the program as a whole

If volunteers or students require more education about mental health issues, the Mental Health First Aid course offered through the Mental Health Commission of Canada ( is a useful introduction to signs and symptoms of common mental health issues (although there is often a registration fee). The Canadian Mental Health Association ( is a source of useful information, as is the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (

However, working firsthand with people who experience mental health issues is likely to provide the best learning! Making sure that you are available to answer questions and provide feedback to students and volunteers will help ensure a rich learning experience for them. Check out “Keeping Volunteers and Students Engaged” (below) for tips.

Keeping Volunteers and Students Engaged

Volunteers are invaluable; it is worth making a special effort to ensure that volunteers recognize the significance of their roles. Here are some tips:

  • Get to know your volunteers and their preferences. Allow them to guide their own volunteer experience as much as possible, respecting their time and comfort level.
  • Address volunteers frequently and publicly by name in your group, to ensure group participants are familiar with them.
  • Check in regularly to ensure volunteers are benefiting from their experience.
  • Communicate your gratitude for their volunteer services on a regular basis, and provide concrete examples of the impact they have on your group. Support participants in expressing their gratitude as well, perhaps by getting the group to sign a card for a volunteer on a special occasion.
  • Look for specific tasks or roles for volunteers. They may be suited to leading a stretching session before a walk, keeping to the rear of the group (that is, acting as the “sweep” on walks), or welcoming new members on their first outing. These duties can be introduced gradually, as volunteers become more comfortable.
  • Debrief with volunteers regularly, either in person, by phone, or through email. Discuss any tricky or uncomfortable situations that volunteers may have experienced. Act as a role model, and invite questions about how you interact with participants or decisions you have made. Try to facilitate a rich learning experience for your volunteers.

Source: Keeping Volunteers Actively Engaged and Productive (NAMI, 2010)

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