Heaps of helping hands

By James Fuller

"The community spirit around Tauranga is huge," says Margaret Butler, manager of Volunteer Western Bay of Plenty.

"I didn't know it existed to the extent it does," adds volunteer co-ordinator Murray Clayton as we sit chatting in the organisation's office in Tauranga's Historic Village.

The compact and functional office is in a cream-coloured, wood-panelled building, which is fronted by a white picket fence and hedge. Volunteer Western Bay of Plenty (VWBOP) has been housed in these quaint and peaceful surroundings since 2001.

Walking through its doors I had received a welcome like that reserved for an old friend. I had dropped in unannounced so I can only imagine this is how most people are received. Margaret and Murray's enthusiasm is infectious and they are on a high.

The last 18 months has witnessed a huge surge in local volunteers.

Two disasters and a raised profile are largely responsible for that, says Margaret.

"Ten months before Rena, the Christchurch earthquake happened and suddenly we had a lot of people wanting to send things to Christchurch.

"At that stage I thought we needed to have some sort of process in place in case anything happened here and it was fortunate that we had that set up.

"When Rena happened we had a lot of the basic rules sorted out but we couldn't cope with the number of people that wanted to volunteer. We redirected a huge amount of phone calls through to Maritime New Zealand, Oiled Wildlife Recovery and Coast Care and they handled the volunteers because we didn't have the resources to do that.

"We had people ringing in who wanted to cook for people on the beach, people who wanted to go out and clean the beach."

The team also received a call from someone in Western Australia wanting to know how he could donate money. Tauranga National MP Simon Bridges' office was called and 15 minutes later a bank account had been set up to handle donations.

The disaster has reawakened a community consciousness and spirit which Margaret says New Zealand has always possessed.

"New Zealand as a society has a strong volunteering ethic. When we were at the volunteer managers' meeting last year they said a million volunteer hours a week are worked in New Zealand.

"That's a huge amount of unpaid hours. And some of those volunteers have been volunteering for many years.

"It's wonderful but I do think the Government relies on it to some degree. There is this feeling that someone will always step up. I see that a lot in fundraising activities, there is an expectation people will help out."

Nevertheless, that spirit is the lifeblood of VWBOP and it has been fostered, nourished and encouraged.

"A year-and-a-half ago we got our website up and running and that's been incredibly successful," says Murray.

"We had a wonderful young volunteer called Amit Kamble who did a fantastic job in updating the website and setting up our Facebook site.

"You can register online as a volunteer now because of the work he did. He now has a full-time job but still volunteers for us."

This rejuvenated online presence, alongside a local advertising campaign, has had a dramatic impact on volunteer numbers.

"We're getting 800 hits a month on the website which is amazing. In a typical month now we're getting 50-55 new volunteers coming through our doors whereas last year it was 20-25. We have had 390 new volunteers registered this year."

Volunteer Western Bay of Plenty has 1319 active volunteers but there are more than 2000 on its books. As the number of volunteers has grown so has the number of organisations being assisted. There are now 78 to which volunteers are supplied, 20 more than in 2011.

While the rejigged website has had an undoubted impact it is clear the energy and passion embodied in the organisation's two most senior figures is a huge part of the success.

"We don't spat," says Murray, who walked into the VWBOP office as a prospective volunteer in February last year.

"I am an early retired architect and came here after an accident. I had never worked in the not-for-profit sector and didn't know anything about volunteering. I said 'I want to use my head and meet people' and the rest is history."

As volunteer co-ordinator a large part of Murray's job is matching people with organisations. Doing this successfully provides enormous satisfaction.

"I get a buzz out of it."

He tells the story of a young man who had overcome some mental health issues and, as part of helping him rejoin society, was recently placed in a labouring job.

"He went out once but I wasn't sure if he would go again. I had an email yesterday saying he had been out three times and was really enjoying it. The email said 'I think we're doing a good job for him'. Well that's just great," he says with a broad smile. "It's a win-win."

For Margaret, the moments of triumph come when funds are procured.

"Every bit of finance has to be applied for, we don't get any direct government funding" says the woman with a background in finance and clerical work who has been with VWBOP for three years. "So my buzz is to get that through the door. To sit down and prepare an application for a specific project and then to get the response back that you've been successful, it's like wahoo," she says punching the air.

"You should feel the atmosphere in here when it's a no," adds Murray with raised eyebrows.

So who is the typical volunteer?

"I used to think volunteers were all blue-rinsed housewives," says Murray. "It's certainly not the case, in fact there is an absence of older people if anything."

The statistics back that statement up. Recent VWBOP figures showed 72 per cent of all volunteers were aged 20-49. Only 12.5 per cent were in the over-60 category.

"We are getting a lot more young people and young professionals coming through. We have a lot of highly educated people, we have ones who are double-degreed, under 27, in management positions with big national companies and working 60-hour weeks. They come in and say they want to give back to the community. We also do a lot of work with migrants."

Organisations which are regularly supplied with volunteers include the Cancer Society, Habitat for Humanity, Waipuna Hospice, Literacy & Language BOP, YMCA, Riding for Disabled and BOP Multiple Sclerosis Society.

The breadth of volunteering work is huge.

Flicking through a new VWBOP brochure it seems as though pretty much any skill can be accommodated. Committee members are required as are drivers, language tutors, fundraisers, musicians, carpenters, painters, handymen, sports coaches, health specialists, shop assistants, or people who can simply offer their time as a companion to an elderly person.

"The range is incredibly broad and growing," says Murray. "We have 109 jobs available presently and at this time last year we had 31. "For example, at the moment the St John Ambulance is looking for 45 volunteers to be instructed on a slight alteration which is required on some home-help buzzers for the elderly. Once that instruction has been received the volunteer will need to spend about 45 minutes in each home, to chat with the person and make the slight alteration. This needs to be carried out before Christmas.

"Alternatively, 16th Avenue Theatre is looking for people to erect and take down billboards before and after shows. Volunteers will get tickets to the show for that, so it would suit people who like to go to the theatre."

Volunteering is not only about giving.

"Volunteering can be used as a pathway to employment," says Murray. "If people have been out of work for a while, lost a bit of confidence, volunteering can help get their CV back together. If they've done 80-100 hours, and they've been reliable and carried out the job satisfactorily, we will offer them a reference and a certificate after working with us.

"So it benefits both parties."

A number of companies now release their staff for one or two company paid days of volunteering in the community.

"We can accommodate that but would prefer some notice so that we can match them with a suitable organisation," says Murray. "About eight weeks would be ideal so we can get the match right."

For would-be volunteers, there is some advice from VWBOP's manager.

"Decide why you want to volunteer, because everyone has a different reason," says Margaret. "Is it to give back to the community, to upgrade your skills or build your networks? I talk a lot to people who are looking for jobs and advise them to build their networks. You have got to put yourself out there and volunteering can help do that. Tauranga is a network town."

Volunteering was traditionally viewed as a long-term commitment and she said that thought could deter people.

"I don't see it like that. If you want to volunteer for six weeks, that's fine, why not? That's why our stats have gone through the roof. You have to be flexible. The volunteer needs to have their needs met as well, otherwise they're off.

"We have a one-off list where people want to do something just for a specific day - whether it's finance gatherers for Daffodil Day, or helping out with the Jazz Festival or Garden & Arts Festival. It's good for people who work all the time but would like to give back one day a year.

"You don't have to have stopped work to volunteer. Get in touch, we will always be able to find something which suits."

You can't help but feel good about an upsurge in the volume of volunteers within your own community, people giving their time freely to help others less fortunate or for a cause in which they believe.

And Margaret says that trend shows no sign of abating, especially if her shopping trips are anything to go by.

"I usually have my name badge on and it takes me hours to go through the supermarket. My husband says he won't go with me now," she laughs. "People see the badge and they want to talk about volunteering. 'How can I help?' 'Can I get involved?' There's a lot of interest out there."

Volunteer assists with websites



 A young Indian man has shown the spirit of giving since he arrived in New Zealand two years ago.

Amit Kamble said the decision to start volunteering came as he was finishing his Bay of Plenty Polytechnic computer science degree.

``During the summer holidays last year I was sitting at home doing nothing and thought getting a volunteer job and meeting people would be better than doing nothing,'' said the 21-year-old, who moved from central India in June 2010.

``I was a student and I am a web developer, so I was looking for volunteer jobs where I could use my skills and interests. When I spoke to Margaret [Butler] and Murray [Clayton] they asked if I would like to look after their website. I agreed because I thought it would also add to my experience.''

Mr Kamble began managing the website, installing a more user-friendly operating system which, amongst other benefits, allowed more efficient use of image galleries and registration forms. The part-time swimming instructor has since begun working for a computer software company in Katikati but still volunteers for VWBOP.

 Mr Kamble encouraged others to get involved in volunteering:  ``Volunteers are the helpers of the community. There are so many events which need people. These organisations need people to put up their hands and say `Sure, I can help you out'.

Instead of just sitting at home watching TV why not get into the community, get to know people and give them a helping hand.''

- Bay of Plenty Times

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