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Not for applause

Flourish 26 Sep 2016

Through a lifetime of helping others, Graham Whitaker has learnt the most valuable asset he can give is his time.

Graham on the tennis court
Some of these kids don't have parents, they've had difficult upbringings. Sometimes all they need is someone to listen. I want them to know they can turn their lives around.

Graham Whitaker had been living at the Willandra Village Retirement Community in Sydney’s Northern Beaches for a week when a police van came to collect him.

Two policemen called into the office and asked for the new resident, much to the surprise of the staff.

“I was taken away for the day, and of course the word got around,” Graham says. “The staff were starting to question what sort of resident they’d let in.”

At that point, they didn’t know Graham was a long-standing Justice of the Peace (JP) who was often whisked away by the police to assist young people in trouble. Now the story is a source of great amusement for the community. “When is the paddy wagon coming for you again, Graham?” the residents joke.

All humour aside, Graham’s volunteer work is a serious commitment that takes up much of the 74-year-old’s time.

Graham grew up on Sydney’s lower North Shore, before moving to Frenchs Forest and then Cromer.  After more than 42 years in the insurance industry, Graham retired and found himself with time on his hands. He had been involved in the Open Brethren church as a lay pastor, marriage celebrant and conference centre board director for many years.

He was also a board director for Everyman’s Welfare Services, assisting the Australian Defence Force. It was only natural for him to extend his contribution.

As a JP, some of Graham’s tamer tasks include authorising documents and witnessing signatures, but he’s recently started lending a hand in the Juvenile Justice division of the police force.

“I’ve always taken an interest in young people and their wellbeing,” he says. “Some of these kids don’t have parents, they’ve had difficult upbringings.  Sometimes all they need is someone to listen. I want them to know they can turn their lives around.”

It’s nothing out of the ordinary for the police to call Graham out at 3am to offer support during an interview with a youth in trouble.  He has also participated in several “drug burns”.

“I go as a JP to witness and sign off that the drugs were burnt,” he says. “I’ve learnt a lot about the police system … they offer great support to our community.”

Graham has just retired from the Salvation Army after 15 years as a qualified suicide-prevention counsellor. He worked regular four-hour shifts for the crisis helpline.

“People rang in the most desperate times of their lives,” he says. “Often they were attempting suicide and we were their last resort.

“All I could do was keep talking to them, to try to give them some inspiration to live. On many occasions, we were able to rescue them.”

Such an intense role could have taken an emotional toll, but Graham says he was able to “shut off” after the shifts. 

“I did what I could at the time and that gave me satisfaction, knowing they had hope and an option to move forward,” he says. 

The altruism doesn’t stop there though – Graham also sings in a choir at the Royal North Shore Hospital and he and his wife, Jane, are active members of their retirement community’s residents’ committees.

When Graham isn’t volunteering, he’s spending quality time with his family – two daughters, two sons-in-law, six grandchildren and a great-grandson. He and Jane celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in April.

Graham also enjoys a hit of tennis twice a week and goes for a swim in the retirement community’s pools, or for a surf at his local beach, depending on the season.  

“The community is a great group of people,” he says. “I’m not short of friends, that’s for sure.”

Graham says being involved in so many activities improves his lifestyle. 

“I take great pleasure out of seeing what I can do,” he says. “It’s about giving back; I feel very blessed with what I have.”

In light of this, he encourages his contemporaries to put their hands up as well. “You don’t get paid,” is the usual response.

“Is that really what life’s all about?” Graham says. “There’s always something to do or someone to help.

“Look in your local community papers, get your Working With Children Check and Police Check – just get out there and be involved.”

For this unsung hero, volunteering isn’t a burden or a chore, it’s a way of life. “I’m certainly not bored in retirement, I love every minute.” Graham says.

words Bonnie Ziegeler photos Dean Golja

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