August 25, 2013

The Kindness of Strangers

Posted in Good news stories, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 3:32 am by Sue Hine

This headline heralded the stories of community response to the 6.6 earthquake that shook up Wellington and the northeast of the South Island last Friday.

Some 30% of the population of Seddon (epicentre of the quake) has left the town.  That is balanced by the numbers of volunteers coming in to help with the clean-up of damaged property and to support people under stress.


In Wellington the ‘flight response’ to the shaking caused a rapid exit of buildings and congregating on the streets.  Frightened people were comforted in the street by other workers, not necessarily from their own workplace.   A mass exit from the city created choked-up roads and the shut-down of the rail network left hundreds of commuters stranded.  That’s when motorists turned up to offer a rides to people trying to get home.  The Wellington Student Volunteer Army got into action for the second time in a month with sound advice on their FB page.

My neighbour was knocking on my door the minute the house stopped its shuddering.  She is not a stranger, but it was good to share what had happened and to laugh with relief that we were OK, and with no obvious damage to our homes.

Volunteers are always there it seems, coming out of the woodwork just when they are needed.  They make great news headlines in times like these.

Yet most of the literature on volunteering (research, reports, conference papers – and the blogs) is concerned with ‘formal volunteering’ where organisations are running structured volunteer programmes.    That’s a pity, because there is a wealth of unpaid work going on under the radar.  ‘Informal volunteers’, the people who help and support family and whanau or community efforts outside the home do not always belong to a particular service or organisation.  They are everywhere, most often doing what comes naturally.

And here’s why:

Volunteerism is a basic expression of human relationships. It is about people’s need to participate in their societies and to feel that they matter to others. We strongly believe that the social relationships intrinsic to volunteer work are critical to individual and community well-being. The ethos of volunteerism is infused with values including solidarity, reciprocity, mutual trust, belonging and empowerment, all of which contribute significantly to quality of life.

This paragraph is the opening statement in United Nations’ State of the World’s Volunteerism Report 2011This overview makes compelling reading: the ideals might be lofty, but the point is the universal embrace of volunteer participation.

So we should not be surprised at the very human responses to an earthquake in Wellington.  Surely the Christchurch experience has taught us a thing or two about the realities of community relationships: the kindness offered at times of stress is not from strangers but from the people of my community.

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