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A volunteers army is on the march!

"I'M EXCITED!" said the Mayor

"I'm delighted!" said Jean and Joan and Dave and Don and -

"We're all delighted," said the clapping hands of three hundred Shire residents come to Hazelhurst Arts Centre to see Shire citizens receive Volunteer Recognition Awards.

"The first-ever presentation of its kind," declared Mayor Ken McDonell. "And it won't be the last. We'll honour more of our volunteers next year - and please note that next year, 2001, is to be the United Nations' International Year of Volunteers. That tells you how important volunteering has become in the eyes of the whole modern world!"

Governments would collapse without

It's no exaggeration at all to say that modern governments can't handle the increasing demands that modern society is making on them.

In fact, governments everywhere are at a relative standstill, so often cutting services, selling public assets and devising new taxes that they face public dissatisfaction amid escalating change. But the societies they supposedly lead aren't waiting for them - they are joining or establishing NGOs, non-government organisations, which are mostly run by unpaid volunteers.

Welcome to the Volunteers Army! - and it's on the march worldwide, aiming to make human society better and kinder and less destructive of the earth than has been the case through the Greedy Eighties and the Nasty Nineties.

Already this army is massive. Could you ever have guessed that over 4 million Australians already volunteer time to non-profit organisations? "In New South Wales alone," says Mayor McDonell, "no fewer than 100,000 of such organisations depend on the help offered by 1.5 million volunteers."

Massive! And yet, still not enough, because the needy and their needs increase all the time. Take one area, that of the frail, the aged, the disabled; they require help with shopping, transport, day care, meal delivery, gardening and handy work, or simply outings, or visiting and spending-time-with.

That's only one needful area - think of the needs of the schools and hospitals, amateur sport and life saving, animal welfare and environmental protection, and much, much more. In the Shire, for instance, over a hundred bushcare groups work on weeding and regenerating local bushland, and over 850 bushfire prevention volunteers stand by, keeping their training and equipment in trim.

What is volunteering?

In this army without uniforms or officers, the volunteers "enlist" by making an unpaid commitment of energy, time and skill in the not-for-profit sector, either to help others directly, face to face, or to help institutions that are seen to be helping others. (Philanthropy, donating to good causes, substitutes money for volunteering.)

Two sides to volunteering

Broadly, volunteering has two sides, which at first seem opposed - a desire to help others and a desire to help oneself. The first is the Good Samaritan, who wishes to serve others, neither asking nor expecting to gain and probably even giving something materially in the process. The second is the Self Improver, who hopes that serving will bring a sense of meaning into his or her life, bring new friends, wider experience, and perhaps desired new skills. Too self concerned to be virtuous? No need here to assign degrees of virtue; in practice most volunteers are probably motivated by a mix of the two elements. So volunteering is about HELPING, whether for the betterment of others or one's own, or the mix.

Distinguished advocates of helping

Jesus : 'Love thy neighbour' - and comfort, heal, give alms.

Buddha : 'Nothing matters more than the relief of human suffering'.

Fred Hollows (scientist): 'You really only accomplish yourself when you get involved in the welfare of other people'.

Dean Ornish (psychiatrist): "Selfless acts help reduce.patients' cholesterol levels and chest pains."

Gavin Whitsett (psychologist): Good works, kind acts and thoughtful deeds will help you become 'the kinder, gentler person you'd like to be'.

W.H.Auden (poet): 'We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don't know'. [Bless his wry wit!]

Helping helps one's health.

There's also this extraordinary news, which isn't nearly well enough known, though it should be shouted from the housetops: WHEN YOU HELP OTHERS YOU HELP YOUR OWN HEALTH.

I could cite many learned studies. Here are three. (Why do they not attract the media?)
  • The decade-long University of Michigan study of 2,700 adults to determine how social relationships affect health concluded that regular volunteer work in the community "more than any other activity, dramatically increased vitality and life expectancy".

  • The Tecumseh Community Health Study of 3000 adults, also across a decade, concluded that those who helped others lived longer themselves - that regular volunteering ranked among the most powerful predictors of reduced mortality rates.

  • The Israeli study, by scientists Z.Magen and R.Aharoni, of 250 upper high school students, concluded: "Ability to experience happiness and meaning in life [is] greater among those willing to give of themselves to others." [One might say: "Be selfish - do something for someone else"!]

How to account for this? A famous experiment by psychologist Bernard Rimland found that happy people are generous people, who spend as much time focussing on the happiness of others as on their own. This is supported from an unlikely source: Tachi Kiuchi, boss of Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, says, "None of us is whole. We need each other to fill our gaps". Volunteering is a prime way to fill those gaps.

Volunteering in Sutherland Shire

How does volunteering in the Shire compare with elsewhere? Statistics are hard to come by, but observers think we're above average.

A councillor says, "There are over 900 community organisations in the Shire. If we moderately estimate an average of 40 volunteers in each, then that's getting on towards 40,000 who are regularly contributing to the wellbeing of others - in other words, about one-in-four of the adult population." Which is certainly above the one-in-five national average reported for 1995 (SMH, 16.4.96).

"You'll find the volunteers in school and childcare activities, health and aged care, precinct committees, bushcare groups, environmental protection, bushfire and other emergency services, management committees of community organisations, neighbourhood watch and safety house schemes, arts and crafts groups, the secretaries and coaches and referees of sporting clubs, and - stop! The list could go on and on."

No wonder John Ross of the Volunteer Centre of NSW speaks of "the enormous value of volunteers to society. worth billions of dollars". He says, "Our society would be unrecognisable if they weren't there!"

No doubt the Shire next May will mark the UN's International Year of Volunteers with a bumper handing out of Volunteers Awards for veterans - and, no less, a warm welcome to newly enlisted members, young and old, of that informal volunteers army.