February 2, 2014
The Best of Volunteering
Volunteers. They are everywhere. You wouldn’t notice them in a crowd. There are no distinctive physical characteristics, nor can they be marked by their age cohort. They are people like you and me, living like you and me in a community, everywhere.
When they are on the job they can be easier to identify, by the badge or the bib or the branded T-shirt, or the full uniform of a volunteer emergency service. Except I can’t remember wearing an ID for any of my volunteer positions, apart from stints of street- collecting, the annual fund-raising event. And that’s the organisation brand being in-your-face, rather than noticing the volunteer giving time and goodwill.
Last weekend I encountered volunteers in two different contexts, and I wasn’t looking at the T-shirt or the name badge. What I noticed before anything else was the quality of their work and their professionalism.
First up is a visit to a scientific and historic reserve, a place for visitors to explore, to get to know native plants and wild-life, and to see how forest restoration is developing. There is no doubt there has been huge growth in the 14 years since I first visited. And all of it started with plantings by volunteers. Now volunteers are involved in maintaining tracks and predator-free status, guiding visitors, and of course in the governance of a charitable trust that oversees management of the reserve. Development here is remarkable for the collaboration between at least three different volunteer organisations and the Department of Conservation.
There are no special IDs for the volunteers we meet. What impresses me is the way they mingle quietly with the visitors, giving us information without being encyclopaedic, helping us understand and appreciate what we are seeing. All friendly and relaxed – just the right touch.
It gets even better when a volunteer invites me and my two young charges to take a look at a special project to establish a breeding colony of Fluttering Shearwater. We get to see the chicks in their burrows, and learn about their care. It’s a big commitment for volunteers: the chicks need to be fed sardine smoothies by syringe, on a daily basis.
The next day we visit an aquarium, a popular place to find and handle local rock pool inhabitants and to view tanks of fish from deeper waters. Volunteers here wear well-labelled T-shirts, and their ages range from teenagers to retirees. Again they are unobtrusive, yet ever ready to answer questions, to show children how to handle the creatures, and tell them something of their life cycle. These volunteers know their stuff too.
The volunteers in these contexts are dedicated enthusiasts for their fields of interest. No doubt newcomers are oriented to responsibilities, and there is a leadership role to ensure organisation protocols are met. It is this autonomous confidence in their role, and enthusiasm for their work, that I would wish all volunteers could experience.