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Caring as a leisure activity

The compassionate person caring for someone as a leisure activity is, to be more precise, engaged in one of the three types of volunteering: career, casual, or project-based. The above-mentioned motivational and contextual background which explains the three leisure forms, in general, also explains these three types of volunteer activities, in particular. This background varies for all three types, however, a condition that underscores the importance of viewing care-giving through the broad lens of the entire SLP. Smith, Stebbins, and Dover (2006:239-40) define volunteer as someone who performs, even for a short period of time, volunteer work in either an informal or a formal setting. Moreover, consistent with the definition of volunteering, caring as volunteer activity is carried out beyond the volunteer’s family. This condition suggests that care within the family circle must be conceived of in terms other than volunteering, even if it may be held by the carer to be leisure. Treating of it as family leisure - that is, when not felt as personal (non-work) obligation - would be one way of doing this.

The care-giving career volunteer meets the six qualifying characteristics of serious leisure in general. Examples of such volunteers include people who (1) work with homeless youth to facilitate their integration in main stream society; (2) first establish and then help run a local immigrant welcoming organization; and (3) spend several hours each week reading stories to people suffering severe loss of hearing or vision. These volunteers routinely express their compassion over a period of time long enough to experience a sense of career in this role.

By contrast casual volunteers engage in much less complex caring activities, which they regard as “fun” or “enjoyable,” but which are, like those of the career volunteer, routine and done over a period of time. People who serve meals to the needy, say, once or twice a week throughout the year fall into this category, as do those who, an afternoon a week, solicit donations to charitable, care-giving organizations by way of telephones or manned desks in shopping malls. Some casual hospital volunteers express their compassion as they feed patients who are unable to feed themselves. And people engaged by the Salvation Army to go about the city in trucks picking up used clothing and furniture to give to the poor might well define this activity as (casual) leisure.

Care-based leisure projects also abound. Examples include a onetime period of service with Habitat for Humanity or an international volunteer tourism developmental project organized by Youth Challenge International or World Wide Fund for Nature (some volunteers here return to participate in two or more projects, in which case their leisure begins to evolve into the serious variety, Wearing 2001). Some disaster volunteers are, in effect, seeking project-based leisure, when they are moved by compassion to help the people suffering from, for instance, the effects of a flood or tornado. Nevertheless, disaster volunteers affiliated with a disaster relief-oriented nonprofit group, such as the Red Cross, who are trained in this specialty and who, on a moment’s notice, are ready to travel to disaster sites, are best viewed as career volunteers (see Britton 1991).

All this constitutes another gap in the research on the SLP and volunteering. Seemingly because of the stipulation that the target of volunteering cannot be the volunteer’s family - here would-be volunteers have no choice, find this non-work activity disagreeable - the possibility that care-giving can be a volunteer leisure activity has been overlooked. The foregoing paragraphs show how short-sighted this view can be. I have even hinted that some family care-giving can be fun and therefore leisure, even while it is obligatory. Most of the time such activity appears best classified as project-based or casual leisure. But the possibility remains in the absence of adequate professional care that some fulfilling, skilled, and knowledgeable care of a family member by a relative is unavoidable (e.g., informed monitoring of medical symptoms or effects of treatment), amounting thus to a genre of hobbyist serious leisure.2 Only careful open-ended exploratory research can shed light on this under-examined area of volunteering.


  • 1 Corporate philanthropy is not germane to this discussion.
  • 2 For a somewhat longer discussion of care-giving, volunteering, and leisure, see Musick and Wilson (2008:24-25).
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