Volunteers in the spotlight Reply

Volunteers who worked at the Sydney Olympic Games gather at a celebration parade after the Games in 2000. Picture: Peter Konnecke

by Karren Vergara

No other event has celebrated volunteers quite like the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Over 40,000 volunteers were recognised for helping make the Games “the best ever”, according to former President of the International Olympic Committee Juan Antonio Samaranch. Some people even used their annual leave to volunteer and in return received complimentary meals, memorabilia and an opportunity to be part of history.

In May 2012, Victor Dominello, the State Citizenship and Communities Minister, announced the NSW Government’s first ‘Volunteering Strategy’ program in NSW.

“The NSW Government has developed a comprehensive suite of initiatives worth more than $4.5 million to promote, recognise and celebrate volunteering,” Mr Dominello said. “We will also do more to recognise the skills developed through volunteering and to help jobseekers use volunteering as a pathway to employment”.

Alexander McRae, who has been volunteering for over 20 years says, “Volunteering generally gives you a good feeling, but the vast majority of people who volunteer do so for altruistic reasons.

“There are so many needs in society that can only be filled by volunteering. Volunteering has always helped society and the community to function. Volunteers often work behind the scenes but their contributions are not fully valued,” he says.

Mr McRae visits Villawood Detention Centre and petitions on behalf of detainees. For two hours each fortnight, he and a group spend time with the refugees. “They feel like there’s someone who cares about them. It takes their minds off the worries of their cases and their own future.”

He says the majority of volunteers at Villawood are young adults in their early twenties, which defies negative stereotypes of young people as self-involved and only looking out for themselves. The Australian Bureau of Statistics shows 6.4 million people volunteered in 2010 with 18 – 24 year olds representing 9.4 per cent of the total.

Two years ago, Stephanie Lorenzo, 25, established the non-profit organisation Project Futures, which is run by young professionals aged between 16 and 35 who volunteer their skills organising innovative events and travel tours to raise money and awareness of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

“Creating Project Futures was a way young people could get involved in doing stuff for charity that was fun, within their skill set and they didn’t have to quit their day job for it,” Stephanie says.

Stephanie has a special approach to get young people to do volunteer work. “Young people don’t respond to negativity and using guilt tactics. They respond to new, fresh and exciting ideas,” she says.

Stephanie is also driven to change attitudes of privileged young Australians. “Young people in Australia are growing up with a global mindset, it’s easy to get them involved in things. If you don’t look at what they like to do and attach that to causes, you’re going to fail.”

Gracia Ngoy is a former refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo and is involved in community work with refugee youth. She has won numerous awards such as the 2011 Human Rights Young People’s Medal and 2010 NSW Young Volunteer of the Year.

Gracia’s own experiences have contributed to her drive and dedication as a volunteer. “Some are facing many challenges. They just someone to be there to tell them they can make it,” she says.

Gracia has been an Australian citizen for 20 years and knows firsthand negative stereotypes associated with being a refugee are prevalent in this country. She aims to change this perception in the community.

“I work with young people who are described by the media as dependent and unintelligent. They become traumatised and disempowered,” she says.

Despite the accolades she has received, Gracia Ngoy believes in her work as a volunteer, “I’m just really passionate to help somebody else fulfil their dreams,” she says.

Mohit Tolani has also been recognised for his volunteer work with Indigenous and refugee children and won the 2011 NSW Highly Commended Youth Volunteer of the Year and 2012 Strathfield Citizen of the Year. Mohit says, “I started without expectations. I just wanted to learn about other people and about myself that would hopefully empower me.”

According to Mohit, there are great responsibilities dealing with young children. The camping programs Mohit help coordinates, build the children’s confidence, teaches basic communication and social skills. “The kids put a lot of trust in you. Trust building is what I learnt and get most out of volunteering,” Mohit says.

Mohit was able to gain time management skills by balancing university studies and volunteering and says, “In any industry you go into, employers look for experience in dealing with different types of people. It broadens your horizon of thinking and ultimately helps you grow internally.”

Mohit Tolani’s is currently studying dentistry and attributes the influence of his volunteer work on his future career and plans to combine dentistry and volunteering prospects in rural and local communities.

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