National Volunteer Week

My Chronicle column this month is on some of the extraordinary volunteers in the Canberra community.
Volunteers Appreciated, The Chronicle, 1 May 2012


Last year, a friend of mine was in Canberra Hospital for cancer treatment. When I asked him how it was going, his first response was to talk about the Hand and Foot massage volunteers that came to see him. ‘It’s not just that they massage my smelly feet’, he quipped. ‘But they stand there telling jokes too. It makes my treatment more bearable.’

Peter passed away in January, aged just 27. His description of volunteering stays with me. As the federal MP for the northside of Canberra, barely a day goes by when I don’t meet another inspiring group of volunteers.

In my own suburb of Hackett, the Holy Cross church just celebrated the anniversary of their ‘Tuckerbox’, where volunteers now provide discounted groceries to over 300 families every week. Reverend Erica Mathieson described to me how the church community established the Tuckerbox because they saw it as an unmet need in the community; a way of helping others.

In Page, the Vietnam Veterans & Veterans Federation ACT are helping returned veterans with their claims, operating a food van at community events, and even running classes on how to cook healthy food. When I visited for their graduation, 66 year-old Danny Burton told the story of how the classes had given him the self-confidence in the kitchen to take over cooking for his partner, who has fallen ill.

Another organisation that only survives thanks to volunteer efforts is the Girl Guides. At EPIC in Mitchell, the Guides last month held their national jamboree, with more than 550 Guides learning leadership and outdoor skills.  At a morning tea, youth leader Sam Chenney told a group of us that signing her up for the Guides was the best decision her mum ever made. Sam told the story of going on a trip with her boyfriend where they had to rope down 100 metres into a canyon. She said she couldn’t believe it when he said he’d never abseiled before; Sam had been abseiling for years in the Guides.

Volunteers also help with community arts. With Belconnen Arts Centre, I recently produced a map of Canberrans’ favourite northside places. ‘Mapping the Northside’ would not have been possible without the hard work of volunteer Alyssa Hardy, who worked alongside the Centre’s staff to uncover the many hidden gems of north Canberra.

Volunteering isn’t just good for the recipients. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ‘The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be a friend.’ In his book The Meaning of Friendship, philosopher Mark Vernon writes about civic friendship, the notion that democracy works best when we look out for others. By volunteering to help others, we’re building a stronger society.

This year, 14-20 May marks National Volunteer Week, to celebrate our existing volunteers and encourage new recruits. If you’d like to offer a helping hand, go to www.volunteeringact.org.au, where you can find the volunteering opportunity that’s right for you.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and his website is www.andrewleigh.com.

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