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Dancing for a Cause

Canadians give of ourselves in many ways.In short, about half of us spend time shaping our communities and enabling charities and non-profit organizations to deliver programs and services to the other half.

Do you ever have the naked dream? No, not that one, the other kind. You're laughing right now, but you know the one I'm talking about. You're standing in a room, delivering an important presentation and mid-way through you look down and to your horror realize you've been buck naked the entire time, explaining the looks of shock and bemusement in the crowd. No? How about the late-for-an-exam dream? I regularly suffer from this one: I'm late for an exam; I cannot find the room and realize once I've finally made it that I've failed to attend classes the entire semester and couldn't possibly pass the test, much less the course. I have others; of course, these are just in the top ranking. These kinds of dreams are a common expression of anxiety, and that so many of us share the same dream is a pretty good indication of our collective fear about public embarrassment and humiliation.

That's why I'm so impressed that four remarkable volunteers are about to turn one of my anxiety dreams into their reality by dancing in front of a crowd of 800 guests in support of aging brain health at the Dancing with our Stars gala on March 7 at the Allstream Centre. These brave souls are about to cha-cha, samba, hip hop and tango their way to the top to raise money and awareness for Baycrest and ground-breaking innovations in aging. Of course, unlike in my dreams, they'll have clothes and professional dance partners. But there will be a panel of some pretty intimidating judges and, as everyone who's ever made a late-night fool of themselves on the dance floor knows, it takes a lot of guts (or beer) to moonwalk in front of a crowd. Just ask David Purdy, Senior Vice President of content and video product at Rogers, who claims people have paid him not to dance. Now that's a commitment to brain health.

In fact, it takes a lot more than simply overcoming a fear of public performance, it speaks to the deep-felt dedication our volunteers have for the work that Baycrest does and its impact on so many. And that's the real story: why people dance in the first place. Take Joshua Wise, an investment banker and father of two. Alzheimer's has directly affected his family and despite the fact that his girls will gladly attest to his superior lack of rhythm (watch the video, they're a tough crowd and spare no mercy on the man's skills), his entire family is cheering him on as he works to raise funds for research for an illness that he's seen firsthand wreak havoc on the mind of a loved one.

Of course, it's not just the dancing. Dancing is only the tip of the iceberg for volunteerism at Baycrest. It's the meal delivery, and piano playing, and art classes, and gift shop supervision, and rehabilitative visits, and movement classes, and holistic seniors' support that create the extraordinarily vibrate space in which the entire Baycrest community thrives. In fact, there are some 2,000 people across the 22-acre campus who regularly donate their time and offer of themselves to the patients and residents in care -- as many volunteers as there is staff! And unlike the dancers, there is no video journey of their work, nobody will pay to come witness their small, everyday acts of love and kindness as they quietly and tirelessly work to keep compassion at the core of Baycrest's services, contributing over 100,000 hours annually.

Canadians give of ourselves in many ways. Statics Canada reports that half the population volunteers by contributing time, energy and skills to all kinds of groups and organizations, providing leadership on boards; canvassing for causes; mentoring; assisting seniors and others in need; delivering food; advocating for social change; coaching teams or holding bake sales for children's community activities. In short, about half of us spend time shaping our communities and enabling charities and non-profit organizations to deliver programs and services to the other half. According to the 2010 Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating, over 13.3 million people -- accounting for 47 percent of Canadians aged 15 and over -- did volunteer work in 2010. They devoted almost 2.07 billion hours to their volunteer activities: a volume of work that is equivalent to just under 1.1 million full-time jobs. In Ontario, as in other provinces, we ingrain the value of volunteerism into the school curriculum, mandating all graduating students to complete 40 hours of community work in order to obtain a secondary school diploma. It's a remarkable commitment to the country we have now, and the one we want to have in the future.

It's exactly the reason Nicole Inwentash, the youngest of the Dancing with our Stars competitors, decided to get involved -- to encourage the younger generation to understand the importance of aging brain health now so that by the time they begin to age, innovations that were once considered science fiction have become a reality. It's a visionary approach to volunteering and it's making an impact.

Of course the innovation isn't just to be pioneered here at home, but shared across the world. "We're dancing on the world stage now," says Margaret Nightingale, a long-time volunteer and board member at Baycrest, tangoing her way to stardom on the stage March 7. Her family has been involved in the organization since its inception early on in the last century when it was founded as the Jewish Home for Aged on Cecil Street in 1918. That's several generations of volunteerism and a very healthy legacy. With over 50 organizational alliances and partnerships across Canada and nearly another 60 additional collaborators across the globe, Baycrest is poised to become the epicentre of care on the aging brain. It's good reason to overcome personal anxiety and get out there and do something to raise awareness. It's good reason to dance. It's better, of course, if you remember your costume.

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