Crosslight looks at the importance of volunteers to the life of the church.
By Deb Bennett
According to figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more than 5.4 million Australians perform voluntary work each year. Collectively, volunteers are estimated to contribute 700 million hours per annum, with an economic worth of $70 billion.
Whether it’s coaching the under-eights’ basketball team, fighting bushfires or serving morning tea at church, the value of volunteers cannot be measured solely in financial terms.
Many who volunteer freely give of their time without thought of personal gain, but most would agree their sense of self-worth and well-being is enhanced by the work they do. Volunteering also provides a valuable sense of community cohesion, locals getting to know others through their work.
In 1989, Volunteering Australia, the national peak body for volunteering, held the first National Volunteers Week (NVW), a collaborative attempt to promote the benefits of volunteering nationwide.
As well as a statement of gratitude for the many hours of unpaid work, the week aims to encourage others to consider the value of volunteering in their own life.
The theme for NVW is ‘everyday people, extraordinary contribution’. It carries the message that everyone has something of value to offer
David Hickey, director of UnitingCare SHARE appeals unit has no doubt about the importance of volunteers throughout the church community.
“Volunteers drive the Uniting Church community service efforts, serving at all levels, from board to clerical tasks,” Mr Hickey told Crosslight.
Mr Hickey feels it is important that volunteers know their efforts do not go unnoticed.
“We sincerely appreciate the work of all our volunteers, their commitment, time money and talent,” he said.
“Each one of our volunteers is making a transformative difference to the church in Victoria and Tasmania.
[Collectively, volunteers are estimated to contribute 700 million hours per annum, with an economic worth of $70 billion.]
Just like family
Tasmanian Lynette Fletcher has been volunteering at Uniting Aged Care – Aldersgate Kings Meadows for the past four-and-a-half years.
She got to know a few of the residents when she was working in her brother’s coffee shop opposite the nursing home. When the coffee shop closed down, she saw volunteering as a way to maintain the friendships she had formed.
“When I finished working, I knew that I had to find something else to do,” Lynette explained to Crosslight.
“Volunteering at the home seemed like a wonderful way to do something useful and give back to the community.”
Lynette works on Mondays and Tuesdays at the home and provides much needed companionship to many of the elderly residents.
“A lot of what I do is just sitting down and chatting with people. With some, I will sit and do the crossword or just listen while they reminisce about old times. I take others on weekly shopping trips.’
Lynette’s young grandson often comes with her, and this has enhanced the connections the residents feel towards her.
“Over time I have formed very genuine friendships, in fact with many I feel I am part of their extended family.”
Lynette is the first to admit that although her motivation might have been altruistic, the benefits of volunteering have been reciprocated.
“If ever I am feeling down when I go there, I always come home feeling great. They give me so much more than I could ever give them,” she said.
Margaret Bowkett is the lifestyle coordinator at Aldersgate and says the contribution of volunteers at the aged care facility is invaluable.
“Forty-seven volunteers contribute to the leisure programs run at Aldersgate Kings Meadows and Aldersgate village. Over the last 12 months they have contributed to almost 10,000 hours of service,” she told Crosslight.
“This year Lynette is one of seven volunteers who we have nominated for an outstanding achievement award through the Launceston City Council.”
[“with many I feel I am part of their extended family”]
A vital resource
Tara Cantwell and Emma Kay are volunteer coordinators at Interchange Outer East (IOE), a non-profit community based organisation that provides support to families with a child or young person living with a disability.
Although IOE receives funding from Uniting Care Community Options (among other charitable organisations), Ms Cantwell told Crosslight that they couldn’t operate without volunteers. Almost 400 volunteers ensure IOE delivers services to those who need it most.
“We currently have 300 recreation volunteers for camps and outings, 40 host volunteers who welcome a child with a disability into their homes one weekend a month, 39 specialised care volunteers who work with children with higher care needs, as well as those who volunteer on the board and in the office,” Ms Cantwell told Crosslight.
“Without volunteers the host family and specialised care programs would not exist. Eighty families use these services. Also, none of our recreation programs would run, so more than 220 families would be affected.”
In recognition of the value of volunteers, IOE offers work place training and skills upgrades. Courses such as first aid, sign language, epilepsy management and child development are offered free of charge to all volunteers.
There has been much talk in recent years about the impact of government regulations on volunteering. For some smaller agencies issues such as insurance, occupational health and safety regulations, and police checks have been prohibitive to the use of volunteers.
But Ms Cantwell believes the benefits of volunteers far outweigh any cost.
“The use of volunteers at IOE far outweighs the cost of things like insurance and police checks,” she said.
“In purely financial terms, if we paid volunteers 20 dollars per hour, this would cost us more than one million dollars per year.”
But any big organisation knows that the work of its volunteers is worth much more than just the financial benefits. Perhaps one of the most significant rewards for the organisation is that they truly become part of a larger community. For places such as IOE, where many of their clients are often marginalised, this higher profile is invaluable.
Another benefit for agencies is that often they can recruit paid staff through their volunteer base.
“At IOE, 25 per cent of staff began their time here as volunteers,” explained Ms Cantwell.
“These staff know the culture, processes, policies and procedures of the agency and have had more time to develop stronger, more trusting relationships with the families.”
As well as benefits to the organisations, Ms Cantwell explained that a research paper conducted by IOE in 2008 highlighted the personal benefits to volunteers.
“We found that many volunteers got new careers out of it, some got accepted into uni courses on the basis of their experience and most said it increased their self-esteem,” she said.
“But perhaps the most important thing to come from it was the value of the friendships formed and the life skills learned as volunteers.
“These are things you can’t put a price on.”
[“Without volunteers the host family and specialised care programs would not exist.”]