Volunteers are the lifeblood of our society. More than six million of us selflessly donate 700 million hours a year to meaningful causes, organisations and to helping others, without seeking recognition or praise. For most, putting others first is just second nature, as Cameron Tait found out.
Suzanne Ward was never going to take it easy in retirement. While some look forward to playing golf or chasing the sun, the Gladstone Park resident felt bored.
After working for 28 years in disability services, she thought she had “done her bit”. But there was something missing.
So she looked around for opportunities and eventually signed up to be a volunteer with Hume Council’s meals on wheels program.
The service provides a three-course meal to those nutritionally at risk or unable to prepare regular meals because of fragility or sickness, mostly elderly residents. It’s proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.
“Some people are lonely and just want to talk,” Suzanne says. “They may not have seen anybody for a few days, so they really look forward to seeing you.
“Because most aren’t able to cook for themselves, it feels good to know they’re all right. I also try to have a bit of a laugh with them. Just saying hello and putting a smile on their face – it makes me feel like I’ve made a difference.”
Every Monday and Friday, Ward heads to the Roxburgh Park Youth Centre to collect her meals, before heading out with a driver to start her run.
On a typical morning, she’ll deliver meals to about 40 homes anywhere from Sunbury to Craigieburn, treating each person she visits like a member of the family.
“Sometimes I’ll put their meals on the kitchen bench and sometimes in the fridge, so I’m able to check if they’re eating properly and if they’ve got fresh bread and milk.
“You meet people living in big homes who you think shouldn’t be alone, but you can’t force them to leave or go into care. You can only be there to help them.
“I’m always careful not to hurt or trample on their pride, because sometimes that’s all they’ve got left. No matter how I feel, when I walk through a client’s front door, I’m always cheerful.
“I look them in the eye, call them by their first name and say, how are you? If it brightens up their day or takes their mind off their worries, even if it’s for a minute, then it’s worth it.”
Suzanne combines her meal deliveries with a seven-hour shift at the St Vincent De Paul op shop in Glenroy every Thursday, where she sorts, prices and sells items donated to the charity.
“I’m a great believer in karma — what comes around goes around,” she says. “In life, you’ve got to pay the piper, because you never know when you’ll be the one needing help.”
According to the Bureau of Statistics, volunteering rates are highest among those aged 45-54, while 18-24-year-olds make up fewer than 10 per cent.
Like any doting father, George Kalandadse worried about his children. All thousands of them.
With 40 years in education, the now retired school principal, who spent the final 17 years of his career at St Albans Heights Primary School, has dedicated his life to making our next generation the best they can be.
He knew there would be some bumps as they navigated their way along the rocky road of adolescence, but hoped they would make it through unscathed.
Since 1989, George has worked as a volunteer with Life Education Victoria, the largest non-government provider of health and drug education to young people.
Its van visits 30 schools and 12,000 children across Hume, Brimbank, Melton and the Macedon Ranges every year, and as chairman of its Hume Calder Committee, the Sunbury resident provides a crucial link allowing the organisation to better meet the needs of the community.
More than four million children have visited the Life Education van around Australia in the past 32 years.
‘‘Our major role is to raise enough funds to keep the vans on the roads and to support our paid educators,’’ George says. ‘‘It’s all about health and wellbeing, self-esteem, and arming kids with the skills and strategies they need to say no.
‘‘Fortunately, none of my own four kids has been involved with drugs, but I’ve known kids who have, and I’ve seen what their families have gone through — it’s torn them apart.
‘‘These kids will punch holes in walls and abuse their parents. They’re not happy, but it’s got hold of them.
‘‘Our kindergarten program starts with the wonders of the human body and we build up to grade 6 when they begin asking questions about drugs, alcohol and peer group pressure.
‘‘How do you say ‘I want to be your best mate, but don’t want to drink alcohol, smoke or take drugs with you’?
‘‘We don’t use scare tactics. We believe with the right knowledge, they’ll make the right choices.’’
In 2000, George became a board member of Life Education Victoria and continues to be amazed by the power of the organisation’s mascot, a giraffe named Healthy Harold.
‘‘He’s got something like 800,000 Facebook friends. Some kids won’t leave the van until they’ve seen Harold, even though they know he’s a puppet. It’s still my passion to allow young people to have the future they deserve.’’
The ABS study reveals volunteering is less common in major cities, at just 34 per cent, while family values and actions are a major influencing factor.
Margaret Bagshaw loves getting her hands dirty. Take one look at her beautiful sprawling garden in Mount Macedon and it’s easy to understand why.
With the sunlight filtering through the trees on a crisp autumn day, it’s like a slice of heaven.
Margaret comes from a family of gardeners.
Her grandparents, Jack and Emma McCorkelle, were the first life members of the Mount Macedon Horticultural Society, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year.
These days, she continues the family tradition as the society’s treasurer. With 210 members, it’s one of the largest in the state. Its bumper calendar includes guest speakers, educational workshops, a flower show, and a plant lovers’ market, while its garden tours are attended by visitors from far and wide.
All these events and activities are organised by a small team of volunteers, including Margaret and her husband Larry. They moved to the small township from Melbourne about 10 years ago.
‘‘Initially, the well-to-do people built their holiday homes up here and they were the ones who established the gardens,’’ Larry says.
Margaret adds: ‘‘We’re lucky. We have good soil and a very gentle climate.’’
However, the couple’s volunteering efforts don’t end there. As well as driving people to people to medical appointments, Larry has also given his time to meals on wheels and a mentor to learner drivers, while Margaret is a passionate member of the district’s historical society.
‘‘In life, you’re either a volunteer or you’re not,’’ she says.
For volunteer opportunities in your area, phone your council or visit govolunteer.com.au