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A helper's high

Jump in and volunteer – everyone will feel better for it.

Mandy Macdonald says her first “heartstrings moment” – and the beginning of a lifetime of volunteer work – was when Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin in 1974. Mandy had just turned six.

“I can remember making lavender bags using Mum’s old pantyhose and dragging my younger siblings door-to-door to sell them,” she says.

“We raised about $5 and I was so proud when Dad wrote out a cheque to send to the cyclone appeal.”

Mandy didn’t stop there.

She joined the Brownies, the Girl Guides and St John Ambulance, and began volunteering in aged care in her home state of Tasmania, before entering a career in the community sector.

Whether it’s in sport, teaching, animal welfare, aged care or providing expertise at board level, volunteers make a huge contribution to society – financially and otherwise.

Volunteering Australia reports that volunteers are happier, healthier and sleep better than those who don’t volunteer. Its research has shown that volunteering results in a “helper’s high”, a powerful physical and emotional feeling experienced when directly helping others.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated the volunteer workforce provided more than $14.6 billion of unpaid labour for not-for-profit organisations in 2006 and 2007. Newer figures are yet to be released.

Lifestyle choices

Volunteering is a way of life for Mandy, who moved to Victoria in 2012 and is now a Director and Deputy Chair of United Way Ballarat and The Ballarat Foundation.

“It wouldn’t be possible without the support of my family and it involves being incredibly organised and using your time very well,” Mandy says.

As the mother of three daughters aged 19, 16 and 14, Mandy is still very much a “hands-on” volunteer, which has included taking a sewing machine to her daughters’ school to make sanitary kits for girls in East Timor.

“To volunteer you need to be engaged and valued,” Mandy says. “Find something that aligns with what you’re passionate about.

“For me it’s about organisations being able to achieve the best results for the individual and the community they represent. It’s also important to know what spare time you’ve got to commit and to treat volunteering as unpaid work.”

Adding value

In a report published by Volunteering Victoria in 2016, Dr Lisel O’Dwyer of the University of Adelaide estimated that the dollar value of the contributions made by Australian volunteers in 2010 was worth $25.4 billion to the Australian economy.

Lisel, who is a social scientist, also reports that because the value of volunteering is attached to many outcomes, one hour of a volunteer’s time should be valued not just once, but several times. Based on this reasoning she estimated the total value of volunteering in 2010 at around $200 billion

Court matters

David Howlett loves being in court. He’s not a barrister, solicitor or magistrate. The 71-year-old retired public servant is a volunteer, who spends his Mondays at the Collingwood Neighbourhood Justice Centre and each Wednesday at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) helping people involved in cases of civil claims under $10,000 understand what’s going on.

“Sixty per cent of people have never been to court before,” David says. “I tell them about the procedures and how the members (of the Tribunal) will speak to them and what they should include in their presentation.

“At the Neighbourhood Justice Centre, I counsel the male perpetrators (usually of violence towards women),” David says.

“There is a need to try and break the cycle of men’s violence. I have got a few people to go to Men’s Line, a service that allows people to regain control of their anxiety and anger.

“It’s a matter of learning how to listen and when to shut up. I don’t comment on the case and I don’t judge them,” David says.

David and his wife Jeanette are set to move into Australian Unity’s Rathdowne Place Retirement Community in Carlton, Victoria, in May.

They started travelling and volunteering after David retired in 2009. In 2012 David was the volunteer administrator of a 100-bed hospital in Malawi, in south-eastern Africa.

“I love volunteering because it’s different. I get personal satisfaction and I get thank yous,” he says.

“It’s more enjoyable (than work), there’s no pressure and no phone calls at 8.30 at night.

“If I need a day off, I have a day off. Once you get into volunteering it doesn’t matter if it’s one day or two days, you’ll enjoy it.”

Music for the soul

Music is integral to Judy Stephenson’s life and has been since she learnt to sing and play the piano as a child. By the age of 50 Judy was acting in local community musical theatre productions. She has played Professor Higgins’ mother in My Fair Lady, Tevye’s long-suffering wife in Fiddler on the Roof and had a supporting role in the 1950s musical The Boy Friend.

Now 77, and living at Australian Unity’s Victoria Grange Retirement Community in Vermont South, Victoria, Judy continues to put her musical skills to good use as a volunteer in the adjoining aged care residence.

“I came into the community in 2015,” Judy says. “After I’d been here a few months I called into the aged care residence and asked if I could do informal sing-alongs for the residents. They jumped at it.

“Sometimes I think I get more out of it than the residents do,” she says.

Songs from both wars are favourites, such as Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag and Mademoiselle from Armentiéres.

The White Cliffs of Dover, immortalised by Vera Lynn, is another much-loved tune that makes the residents smile.

Judy volunteers for a couple of hours each week and for longer during busy periods such as Christmas.

The reward, she says, is seeing the love and warmth from the people who are listening and enjoying her music.

Judy’s advice to anyone considering volunteering is: “Throw yourself in at the deep end. If you have a love and a passion, go for it."

Words: Maria Triaca


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