Today my husband and I spent around 6 hours and 45 minutes volunteering. Partly campaigning for The Australian Greens in the Federal Election, and partly fund raising for our kids’ school with the obligatory election day sausage sizzle. Why would we do that? What on earth is in it for us?
Partly, I must admit, I am a soft touch. Wherever there are people gathered together trying to achieve something laudable, you can be sure that I will get roped in. Even when I am maxed out and in over my head, I have terrible trouble with the N-word. And yet… and yet… that’s not what kept me on the committee of our community run childcare centre for the entire 8 years my kids were there.
It’s not what made me help out with reading in my daughters’ classrooms, when reading was not something my own girls ever needed help with. It’s not what makes me hand out how to vote cards at every election, nor what often sees either me or my husband cooking sausages at the school sausage sizzle on the same day. Or help out with cleaning, selling chocolates and more sausage sizzling for the gymnastics club. Or any of the other things we find ourselves lavishing time on.
The thing is that volunteering, while hard and sometimes even traumatic work, has added a dimension to my life that can’t be found elsewhere. It brings me into constant contact with like-minded people, some of whom have become lifelong friends. It gives me immense satisfaction, as I put my time and effort where my mouth is, and contribute something worthwhile to my community.
Take the childcare committee, for example. We chose a community run child care centre on ethical grounds – like health and education, we don’t believe childcare should be a money making enterprise. It is a public good. Community run childcare centres put any profits back into the centre. They are able to have higher staffing ratios, lower fees, and better services (like cooked meals). They also seem, on average, to be nicer places to be, with happier staff who are devoted to the centre and the children.
The price, of course, of a community run childcare centre is that it requires the community to pitch in and run it. Sometimes this means little more than one evening a month of a friendly committee meeting. Sometimes it means hours and hours of hard work and stress. Sometimes finding enough parents to fill the committee was hard. Other years, for some reason, we were full to overflowing. But for the most part the parents who volunteered were well worth knowing. They were compassionate, dedicated and honourable. I have immense respect for them, and feel enriched for knowing them. Two years after leaving that centre, and hence the committee, I remain grateful to them for their dedication, their friendship and their support.
As a result of being on that committee I got to know the staff much better, and developed an in-depth understanding of the childcare industry. I gained management experience and learnt things about financial management I never expected to know. I can tell you all about incorporated associations and the model rules that govern them. Together with others I rewrote the constitution and now know more than I ever wanted to about childcare regulations in Victoria. I met politicians and navigated the murky waters of conflict resolution. It was an astonishing education.
The first time I handed out How to Vote cards for The Greens was also a learning experience. I found that there was a sense of solidarity amongst the volunteers that crossed party lines. In between waving our bits of paper at innocent voters we laughed and joked and even talked politics, with a surprising lack of animosity. I met interesting people, and scared my neighbours (who may have been afraid that the Green was contagious). And without consciously trying to teach them, I showed my kids what it means to stand up and speak out for your beliefs.
Being a compulsive volunteer has changed my life. I am part of my community in a way I never was before. I have learned things I never thought to know. And I have met people I will never forget. I have given a lot of myself, over the years, but I have received much, much more.
So next time you are looking for a hobby, or just something to fill in a weekend, think about volunteering. Join the school council. Volunteer on the kinder or childcare committee. Fund raise for something you care about. Volunteer for a charity or an ethical organisation with values similar to your own. You never know what you might gain.