Martina Holblingova didn’t always know that she had a passion for volunteering. For the first half of her career, she worked as an assistant to executive directors and had never considered volunteering her time. Then, a friend asked her to take on a job coordinating public relations with a volunteer centre in her hometown of Frydek-Mistek in the Czech Republic. For the first year, she watched how happy and fulfilled the volunteers coming through the centre were. Finally she decided she had to try it herself. She started volunteering with children with mental disabilities. “They were so welcoming,” she says. “We had such fun together playing board games. They remembered every detail of what we talked about together.”
After two years of volunteering with children, Martina decided she wanted to try volunteering in a hospice. She had made many friends who were volunteering with dying people and she was intrigued by how much they loved it. “I wanted to try it because I didn’t know what to say to dying people or their family members in my own life. We’re so uncomfortable speaking about death; we try to pretend it doesn’t exist. Once I started volunteering, I realized that death is not so bad. Dying people can have a smile on their faces.”
During her visits, she joined up with other volunteers to sit by the bedsides of dying people. They would laugh and talk, creating the kind of social environment that many patients were missing. She remembers one time that she took a patient out to sit on the patio of a local pub and enjoy a beer. “I don’t even drink beer!” laughs Martina, “but that’s what he wanted to do.”
A year and half ago, Martina and her husband Thomas decided they were ready for an adventure and the opportunity to learn English, so they moved to Canada. Martina knew that she wanted to continue volunteering with people in the last stages of life. Since Three Links was right across the street from her new home, it was an obvious match. She asked to visit with people who are in the advanced stages of dementia because she knew how important companionship was for them. It doesn’t faze her that the residents she visits can’t speak to her. She sings to them (a mixture of Czech songs and Happy Birthday and O Canada). When a resident hums along or smiles at her, she positively glows. She also connects by mirroring the person she visits: describing what they are doing , what they look like, and what she knows about them. Everything she says comes out with such compassion and joy that it’s hard not to feel special in her presence.
During her first months in Vancouver, Martina noticed that many other newcomers to Vancouver were interested in volunteering, but didn’t know how to get started. “My gift is that I can bring people together,” says Martina, “and my passion is volunteering.” So she launched the program Make a Connection which creates opportunities for newcomers to sample volunteer roles in different organizations. Three Links was part of her first round of the program. Volunteers visited the care centre, met residents and volunteers, and learned about the positive impact they could make by joining the team. Martina’s dream is to someday expand Make a Connection into a full-fledged non-profit that could introduce many more newcomers to the joy that can be found in volunteer service.