Paul Thompson, left, and Mark Dawson started Port Alberni’s Army of Problem Solvers, an informal group that takes a different approach to community volunteerism. MIKE YOUDS PHOTO

Port Alberni’s ‘Army of Problem Solvers’ to the rescue

Facebook group gathers people who just want to help their neighbours

BY MIKE YOUDS

Special to the News

After a day of volunteering, the prime movers and shakers behind Port Alberni’s Army of Problem Solvers crossed the street to a potluck dinner to talk about — what else? — solving problems.

At the invitation of Pastor Brenda Nestegaard Paul of Trinity Community Church, Paul Thompson and Mark Dawson dropped by to explain a fresh approach to community volunteerism.

Not long after relocating from Toronto to Port Alberni, where they operate a guest hostel, the pair attended a talk by Shaun Loney, a Winnipeg social enterprise advocate. Loney, who wrote the book An Army of Problem Solvers, believes that “social entrepreneurs” can be effective at addressing community issues at the grass roots. This inspired Dawson to take up the cause in his own neighbourhood.

“It’s so good to be in a community where so many are willing to work together,” Dawson said, adding that volunteerism is more common in smaller communities.

Nestegaard Paul, who regularly hosts potluck dinners under the banner of “South Port Proud,” joined other guests in applauding the initiative.

As a volunteer group, Problem Solvers continually encounter seniors who want to remain in their own homes but can no longer do necessary maintenance. More Canadians are living alone, Dawson said. They often lack supports once commonly provided through traditional community groups such as service clubs and churches, which have seen gradual declines in members and parishioners.

Dawson decided to rally likeminded volunteers through a Facebook page, Port Alberni’s Army of Problem Solvers, a virtual group that can be called upon at short notice.

“There is no membership fee, no long meetings. That’s part of the appeal. This is more of an informal group,” he explained. “People can choose their level of commitment.”

They helped one woman, a 40-year resident of a local mobile home park, to keep her home.

“She can now stay there. She doesn’t have to leave. It’s in our best interests to let her stay there. That’s where our group comes in.”

In the first 18 months, 341 people signed up to serve in the “army,” expressing a willingness to help with projects.

Projects vary from yard maintenance, building a new stage for a local bar, reroofing Char’s Landing, a business based on social enterprise, and serving soup for the Alberni Valley Seedy Saturday event in March.

“By definition, it’s probably one of the largest groups in town,” Dawson said. “I’m quite proud of that. But having said that, it’s one of the easiest groups to be part of.”

Often the projects wind up with a half-dozen volunteers “doing the heavy lifting,” but they are a diverse group, “slightly skewed to women.” They also welcome donations of materials for the various projects.

“Every little bit helps,” Thompson said. “That’s the beauty of it.”

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