As a kid growing up my only clear memory of "volunteer" being used was one of the few war stories my Dad, a Tobruk Rat, would tell. Apparently a sergeant-major asked for volunteers interested in music. Four stepped forward and shortly after were seen lugging a grand piano across the parade ground.
Yet in all of the many places across Australia in which I lived, people were always "pitching in", "giving a hand" or "having a whip around". It wasn't called "volunteering" it was simply how we lived. The lamington drives for the CWA were only surpassed by the chook raffles for the footy club. If your neighbour was ill, everyone helped get his crop off. When a wisp of smoke appeared on the horizon, everyone grabbed the tankers and went.
They still do. The idea that we don't volunteer any more doesn't stack up. Magnificent volunteer fire fighters still put themselves in harm's way. SES members are still the angels in orange when disaster strikes. They're a credit to us and to the bosses who give them time off work to attend emergencies. In her foreword to the National Volunteering Strategy in November 2011, then Minister Tanya Plibersek wrote, "Each year, more than 6 million Australians contribute their time, energy and expertise to volunteering activities" contributing "more than 700 million hours of unpaid work".
It has to be the real deal. As one Australian PM famously said, "An Australian can pick a phoney in a fog at four hundred metres". It has to be communicated in a way that resonates with the group you're seeking to engage – and we're an incredibly diverse bunch these days. Some say young people don't volunteer any more. They're on duty as life savers at our beaches, and serving in third world countries. On his return from an overseas project with his school, one fifteen year old in my church raised enough to significantly improve water quality in the village he'd visited.
In 1974 I joined a group of twenty-somethings, from churches of every denomination and none, trying to support the homeless young people we were encountering, when most didn't believe they existed. Aussies within and beyond churches, in business and eventually government gave us support. One rental home in Victoria Park grew into part of the Mission Australia network. The Christmas lunch we started in Wellington Square still caters for the lonely each Christmas Day.
Radio 6PR had faith in an untried rookie who wanted to use commercial radio to help create community and wouldn't do ads. My colleagues always found a way to say "Yes" and because of their support, inter-agency Christmas and Blanket Appeals and Lifeline WA came to be. A phone line became a lifeline, and still does, thanks to volunteers manning phones twenty-four seven. The ex-military man who rang Nightline saying, "I guess I just wanted to say good-bye to someone" is alive today as are countless others. The lives of people they would never meet were changed by the service of these selfless, great Australians, and I'm honoured to have journeyed with them. Any public recognition I have received is truly theirs.
It's not just in formalised programmes. When my wife and I had a blow-out in the middle of a state forest at sunset, I had just started unloading the boot when a four wheel drive pulled up. A friendly young family emerged, changed the tyre, and followed me back to Perth. Like the fisherman who returned the wallet I'd dropped at Cervantes, they would not accept any reward.
The old adage is true – volunteers have no dollar value not because they are worthless but because they are priceless. They have discovered what George Bernard Shaw called "the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one… instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy."
Meet our honoured West Australians
On Monday, the four Western Australia Award recipients, Professor Lyn Beazley AO FTSE (Australian of the Year); Graham Mabury OAM CitWA (Senior Australian of the Year); Drisana Levitzke-Gray (Young Australian of the Year) and Stacy Dunbar (Australia's Local Hero) will set out on a three-day tour of honour of Karratha and Broome.
They will be attending free public forums where the general public can meet them, hear their stories and ask them about their lives and what makes them so inspirational.
Monday May 4 – Public Forum at the City of Karratha Public Library from 6pm to 7:30pm
Wednesday May 6 - Public Forum at the Shire of Broome Function Room from 6pm to 7:30pm.
Graham Mabury is a recipient of the the Senior Australian of the Year Award