Elmira is a town quite literally built on volunteers. From the annual maple syrup festival to the Kate’s Kause playground currently under construction in Gibson Park, residents and passersby are reminded of this fact on a nearly daily basis. Next week one of Elmira’s longest-serving volunteers, Alma Alder, will be recognized at the Waterloo Regional council meeting, where she will be named as the Ontario Senior Volunteer of the Year for the region.

It would be an understatement to say the 75-year-old Elmira resident was humbled by the award.

“It feels amazing,” she said while seated in the local history section of the Elmira library, the place where she has volunteered for nearly 20 years.

“I was very surprised, and it’s really nice to be with these people and that they think I help them.”

Alma Alder has been named Ontario Senior Volunteer of the Year for the Waterloo Region for her work at the Elmira Library, where she’s been helping out for more than 20 years. [james jackson / the observer]
Alder volunteers one day a week at the library, where she is a Jill of all trades: she re-shelves and organizes books, helps categorize and sort books, signs books out, tapes the edges, and accepts deliveries from other libraries in the region.

And the library has certainly come a long way in the past two decades.

“We didn’t have the computer,” she said of when she started. “All the books had little cards and they all had to be filed alphabetically and you had to write everything in when people took books out, and now it’s all done on the computer.”

Started in 1994, the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship established the award that allows each municipality to recognize one outstanding senior citizen volunteer. Recipients are people over the age of 65 who have made their communities better places to live, and Alder certainly fits the bill.

“If it was not for people like Alma we could not do the job that we do, I can say that quite bluntly and boldly.” said Sheryl Tilley, supervisor of the Woolwich Township library branches.

“It’s good to know that we can depend on Alma to help us shelve and circulate books and that frees us up to do other things. We literally could not do the job that we do.”

Tilley said that while the other employees and volunteers at the library appreciate her smile and gentle good humour, it is her willingness to learn anything new that sets her apart. When the destructive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March 2011 Alder – whose son lives there with his family – asked for a complicated task to keep her mind busy to keep from worrying about them.

“So we taught her how to run the circulation desk. She knows our computer software now for checking books in and out, and that can be a daunting task for anybody to learn,” said Tilley.

Alder believes that libraries are, and will continue to be, important components of a community. She said that they are an important meeting place and offer virtually unlimited sources of knowledge. She herself took up learning Japanese on tape and in print.

“There is so much knowledge here, you can learn about other countries if you want to travel, you can learn other languages, there’s home décor and gardening, just anything that you want to look up it’s here.”

Both women also agree on the value of volunteer service within the community; from a senior’s perspective volunteering has kept Alder’s mind active, allowed her to meet new people, remain active in the community, and even receive some physical exercise (she walks to work each week).

Tilley, meanwhile, said it’s a great opportunity for youth to fill their community hours and even get their foot in the door of the library profession.

“We have quite a number of volunteers; approximately 35 volunteers at this branch. It’s a great opportunity for young people in high school, and we find that if they learn as a volunteer there are sometimes job openings for students and they can work their way up the system like that.”

Alder will be presented with her award on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the regional council chambers at 150 Frederick St. in Kitchener. The public and family are invited to attend.

The Elmira library is also hosting a party next Thursday at 2:30 p.m. to celebrate her award and her 20 years of service at 65 Arthur St. S.