A third of our population spend their weekend working as volunteers. Gill South investigates

For thousands of New Zealanders, the weekend is not a time of unadulterated leisure. For them it's a time to turn their attention to other priorities, activities which both replenish their energy - and give them and their communities a good feeling. According to Nielsen Research, 30 per cent of the population volunteered in the March 2010 quarter. Many of these are informally volunteering in the arts, sport, and health sectors, doing anything from surf lifesaving to acting as crew in the performing arts.

"Volunteering is the giving of time, so if you are new to it, have a think about your personal goals and values, and look out for what you might need in your community, locally or virtually," says Volunteering New Zealand executive director, Vanisa Dhiru.

Volunteer centres around the country match people up with the right thing for them.

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"If you are an accountant, you could help with financial knowledge, but if you are also a mother, you may be able to help other young mums in a mentoring or support programme as well," says Dhiru.

At weekends, when 14-year-old Ruby Seeto isn't out and about with her friends, she is doing artwork for her favourite charity, Starship. The cancer survivor has her own website, rubyseeto.com, which lists all her causes, but Starship is the one closest to her heart. The 14-year-old, who had a rare cancer at the age of 9 and became clear of it at 11, formed close relationships with the Auckland children's hospital.

"When I was in there they helped me lot. I wanted to give back to them," says the St Cuthberts pupil.

She has found a practical and lucrative way to fundraise for the children's charity. Linking up with Wallace Cotton, the bed linen company, the she designs a Starship teatowel every year, which Wallace Cotton makes and sells for $10 each. Her "Gingerbread Friends" tea towel last year raised $72,000 and her latest one, with a hokey pokey icecream theme, has just been released. The schoolgirl hopes to do "something in art" for a living.

Seeto is also working with food store Farro Fresh to promote the tea towels for Starship. She will be in at one of the stores over a weekend soon to talk to people about them and to make hokey pokey icecream from the recipe on the tea towel.

Another Auckland schoolgirl, Carla Boniolo, head girl at the North Shore independent co-ed school, Kristin, and her prefect team of 21 do their share of volunteering on weekends and holidays.

After the Christchurch earthquake in February, the prefects organised for students and families of Kristin School to each put together a care package in a shoebox for a child of a similar age. They filled them with books, beanies and gloves, to let them know people were thinking about them, says Boniolo. The head girl, her team of prefects and groups of Year 10 and 11 students came in to the school over a weekend to sort the 700 boxes into genders and label them.

"KidsCan distributed the boxes for us to schools in need," says Boniolo.

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Kristin has also organised to send some televisions to Christchurch through the charity.

Over the recent school holidays Carla and her prefect team spent a week at the Salvation Army Men's Hostel in Epsom renovating the recreation room there. The group financed the work themselves through fundraising initiatives.

"We are told at Kristin [that] to be a leader means to give back, to do service," says the 18-year-old.

It's a good idea to work with a charity that truly suits your skills. Leigh Donaldson, a BNZ business manager, volunteers for the charity Dress for Success, and thoroughly enjoys her weekend sessions once a month, helping women returning to the workforce to choose a new work wardrobe.

"It's a natural fit for me, I genuinely enjoy helping people. We've all had hard times," says Donaldson.

When you lose that confidence, a new workplace can be daunting, she says.

"It's not about how they might think they'd like to dress, it's about getting them to think about the environment they are going into.

"It's not work," she says.

The bank executive thoroughly enjoys sharing the women's experience, taking delight in their new confidence. She notes the difference in "how that person walked in and how they left".

For some volunteers, they become involved in a certain charity because of a personal association. When The Warehouse executive Julie-Ann Mowat's brother was diagnosed with leukemia years ago, there was no such thing as a Ronald McDonald house.

Her family went to Australia for the bone marrow transplant, which Mowat donated. The first Ronald McDonald House in Australia was opening so when they came back, Mowat's family contributed some money towards starting a Ronald McDonald house in New Zealand.

"People need some security, some stability when it all falls apart, where they don't have to worry, they know they have got a bed and some food," says Mowat.

With her children now 18 and 20, every Sunday fortnight, Mowat goes into one of the houses and does whatever is required.

"I take time out from my family but they definitely support me," she says.

The trick is not to get so attached that you want to take these families home," says Mowat.

"It's a lot of fun. If I'm not enjoying it, I would not be there. It's very fulfilling."

Volunteering doesn't mean that you have to stay in Auckland every weekend.

Frank Katavich is on the Project Tongariro committee, the group which helps the Department of Conservation look after Tongariro National Park.

Katavich, in his 70s, keeps fit getting rid of noxious weeds, replanting and introducing native species.

The retiree enjoys the company of the volunteers.

"Most of the people are like-minded," he says.

Some have become good friends. His work allows the Aucklander to tramp and be outdoors, two of his favourite things.

Katavich, who has a holiday home in Ohakune, does marshalling for various events at the park: the Goat Alpine Adventure Run in December, or the Landrover Tussock Traverse on Auckland Anniversary Weekend. "I always look forward to going down, whatever the event is," says Katavich.

How to reach out
Love to help in your community, but not sure who needs you or where to start? Volunteer Centres match those wishing to volunteer their time with local not-for-profit organisations that need help. They generally operate in a similar way to recruitment agencies, and current roles range from flower services to truck driving to serving breakfasts. There are 16 centres operating in New Zealand.

* Auckland Ph: 09 377 7887, volunteer@volunteeringauckland.org.nz, www.volunteeringauckland.org.nz
* Waikato Ph: 07 839-3191 volunteeringwaikato@xtra.co.nz, www.volunteeringwaikato.org.nz
* Western Bay of Plenty Ph: (07) 571 3714, mgr.volunteerwbop@xtra.co.nz, www.volunteernow.org.nz/contact

To find out more about volunteering with the organisations go to:

* www.starship.org.nz/get-involved/ and wallacecotton.co.nz for Starship teatowels

* www.dressforsuccess.org/supportdfs-volunteer.aspx
* www.kidscan.org.nz/volunteer
* www.salvationarmy.org.nz/contact-us/volunteer-with-us
* www.rmhauckland.org.nz/getinvolved/volunteer/howtovolunteer.php
* www.tongariro.org.nz/volunteer.html

Other organisations currently seeking help include:

* SPCA: www.spca.org.nz/GetInvolved/Volunteering.aspx
* YWCA Auckland: www.akywca.org.nz/get-involved/become-a-volunteer-or-a-mentor.aspx
* CanTeen: www.canteen.org.nz/get-involved/become-a-volunteer
* Lifewise: www.lifewise.org.nz
* Auckland City Mission: http://www.aucklandcitymission.org.nz/volunteer_site_info.html?mID=17

Also check out:

* www.volunteeringnz.org.nz and its subsidiary, volunteernet.org.nz which connect volunteers with special events seeking helpers. And if you want to do something small and kind, Thursday September 1 is national Random Acts of Kindness Day, a day where Kiwis are encouraged to do something kind for a colleague, friend or stranger.

* www.rak.co.nz