“What is the essence of life? To serve others and to do good.” – Aristotle
I recall some years ago, an Australian politician thought he would demonstrate how ‘in touch’ he was with the common folk. He suggested that volunteering was a great thing to do, and proposed that everyone in Australian should volunteer one hour per week to a voluntary cause. Sounds great and noble, eh?
The response from one national social service organisation was probably not what he expected – they observed that if everyone in Australia donated only one hour per week to volunteer work, the entire economy would collapse in a heap. From sports teams to school lunches, from meals on wheels to fire fighting, from human rights to home care, from activism to animal welfare – volunteering comprises a large component of our individual and collective civic life.
I recall stories of my own.
“Speaking out on behalf of the disadvantaged is my way of justifying my existence” – Halina Wagowska
In the 1980s, I began my volunteer involvement with a human rights organisation that included writing letters to overseas governments in the days when the pen was mightier than the keyboard. My friends and I wrote in particular to a certain government whose human rights abuse of its own citizens made it a target of activist letters. Word was that the President of the nation became quite agitated because his government had to actually employ extra staff to open and respond to the many letters they received from around the world.
Some years later, that government fell and was replaced with a civilian government that rewrote its national Constitution in order to enact new human rights protections for its citizens. Around that time, I met a church minister who was visiting Australia from that nation. I told him that my friends and I had written letters to their former government, and I asked whether or not such activism was helpful or simply a sanctimonious waste of time. He smiled warmly and told me confidentially that he could not walk down a street in his town without talking to people whose lives – or the lives of their families and friends – had been saved by activist letters.
“My friend,” he told me warmly, “Whatever you are doing, keep doing it. You are changing lives.” Those words fuelled my activism for many years because they taught me that volunteers really can change the world.
“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”
– Barack Obama
By the time we met, she was already an older woman depending upon a walking stick for personal mobility – and yet her spirit was indomitable. She was a front-line fighter in an epidemic that has now extended for forty years, and like a commendable few around the world, she was there at the height of the battle. While others (mainly young gay men, often rejected by family and Australian society) were becoming ill and succumbing to what we now call AIDS, she donated countless hours of volunteer time to be their mum. She befriended them, cared for them, took them shopping or to medical appointments, visited them and held their hands as they lay dying in hospital, attended their funerals, and then began again with the next young man in need. She stopped counting their funerals when they reached one hundred, but she never stopped caring.
I met her because our volunteer work overlapped at the AIDS Memorial Quilt, where she memorialised many of her extended family of lost young men, attended workshops to support the grieving, marched with those living with HIV/AIDS, and demonstrated that a little old lady’s heart was a formidable weapon against widespread social stigma and discrimination. She was living proof that although love cannot cure the world’s ills, it can make them more bearable. Now gone herself, Mary was my hero.
“Remember that the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more.” – H. Jackson Brown Jr.
Two students of mine – a quiet boy and girl – had volunteered to visit an old folks’ home as part of their weekly community service activities. They had avoided the loud, popular activities, featuring crowds and kudos and other youngsters, choosing instead to chat quietly to grandmas and grandpas. At the end of that year, a woman arrived at the school and asked to speak to the teacher in charge of sending teenagers to that nursing home. She was greeted with some trepidation (“what have those kids done wrong?”). Instead, she explained that her mother was a resident at the nursing home, and that she had visited her mother that week while the students were there. It turns out that, unknown to anyone else, these teenagers had smuggled formal evening wear and a disc player in their school bags, had dressed up when they reached the facility, and had waltzed with each of the residents in turn, while playing old melodies. This woman had seen the sparkle in her mother’s eyes, and those of the other old folk, as these shy teenagers had danced and laughed and shared, and had then given out Christmas gifts of biscuits and cakes that the girl and her mother had personally baked at home. None of this was ever spoken about at school by the kids involved. They wanted no fame or glory; they were just happy to treat these elders with grandparently care, respect, and human love. (Naturally, I ensured that they got a letter of commendation from the school – a quiet reward that did not publicly draw attention to them with their peers, but which still acknowledged their efforts). Those kids learnt an important lesson: in seeking to create a better world, we also improve ourselves.
“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” — Dr Syed Muhammad Zeeshan Hussain Almashhadi
©2021 Geoff Allshorn