The Australian volunteer market took a massive hit during COVID-19, as many vulnerable members were unable to keep up their commitments and needed to stay safe at home.
Now, this year's National Volunteering Week campaign 'Recognise. Reconnect. Reimagine.' is encouraging people to return to their past volunteer commitments and start giving back to their local communities.
For National Volunteering Week, Meals on Wheels Australia acknowledged their dedicated volunteer workforce for their significant contribution to the nourishment, independence and connection they provide to over 200,000 vulnerable Australians annually.
President of Meals on Wheels Australia, Sharyn Broer, says without its volunteers Meals on Wheels would simply not be possible.
"The last 18 months have been particularly challenging for Meals on Wheels services, however, the resilience and commitment of our incredible volunteer workforce has proved itself second to none," says Ms Broer.
"From dealing with devastating bushfires and floods to the global COVID-19 pandemic, our volunteers stood up and continued to deliver our essential service at a time where it was needed most.
"We couldn’t support vulnerable Australians without them. And I think that is pretty special… the knowledge that you’re making a real, tangible difference in your community and having a lot of fun while doing so."
Meals on Wheels recognises the value of volunteering and the impact it has on both their customers and the volunteers themselves. Studies have shown that volunteering improves a volunteer's mental wellbeing and can also provide a potential pathway to employment.
Ms Broer adds that at a time where COVID-19 was leaving many older people feeling lonely and uncertain, Meals on Wheels volunteers played a critical role in reducing social isolation and malnourishment.
Meals on Wheels is hoping National Volunteering Week will encourage people to volunteer, as they, like many other providers, experienced a downturn in available volunteers.
"As the COVID-19 pandemic meant many of our high-risk volunteers had to stand-down temporarily from their usual duties for their own health and safety, Meals on Wheels services across the country are on the look-out for new volunteers to help cook, prepare and deliver the meals to our vulnerable customers," says Ms Broer.
Community services organisation, Community Vision, says volunteering can bring such joy to the lives of their volunteers and the people they help, and these helpers should be thanked for their altruistic efforts.
Community Vision highlighted one such volunteer, Mary Anne, who was introduced to the provider in 2009 when her mother with dementia required social inclusion and would use the organisation's social centre.
"My mum enjoyed the games and competing with other customers and although she didn’t speak a lot of English, she still communicated with ease and had great fun with the carers and interacting with others," says Mary Anne.
When Mary Anne was made redundant from work, she ended up spending a lot of time at the centre with her mum before she passed away in 2014.
Mary Anne had a break from the centre, but realised how much she missed the place and the company, so she ended up returning to do volunteering.
"I find it very fulfilling to see other people enjoying themselves and having a laugh and I get excited when customers come in and remember who I am and ask what I have been up to," says Mary Anne.
"Volunteering works both ways. I am there to help them, but I am gaining so much at the same time. I make tea and coffee, help prepare lunches and morning tea, set up and play games with customers and I like taking care of the garden out the back too."
"...If you have some spare time, caring for elderly people can be quite fulfilling and it can really fill a void. Once you leave your working environment you don’t have that personal interaction with people every day. I would encourage anyone with spare time to consider volunteering and bringing joy to someone else’s life."
Aged Care Manager at Community Vision, Michelle Tan, says their volunteers play an integral role at the organisation and they simply couldn't do without people like Mary Anne who make a massive difference in the lives of their customers.
Peak body for Australians with dementia, Dementia Australia, is also celebrating and thanking their 1,000 volunteers who contribute to the lives of people living with dementia, their families and carers.
CEO of Dementia Australia, Maree McCabe, says this organisation wants to express its appreciation for the "immeasurable impact" their volunteers make on the broader community.
"Volunteers are integral to the work that we do at Dementia Australia and we are extremely grateful for the generosity and compassion our volunteers bring to their roles," says Ms McCabe.
"Without volunteers we simply could not do all of the work we do. This week and every week we say thank you to them for the extraordinary difference they make."
Due to COVID-19, some of Dementia Australia's volunteer programs had to be "reimagined" and offered online instead.
Dementia Australia volunteer, Chris Finley, has been with the organisation for over five years, after caring for his late wife Wendy who lived with dementia, and says he enjoyed the opportunity to continue volunteering during a time that made it really difficult to do so.
He took part in online programs like 'Blokes in a Caring Role', which can be both confronting and cathartic to participants on the program. However, he found this initiative has made a tangible difference in the lives of many of the men that participated.
"There was no deliberate intention, but volunteering has certainly made my transition from carer to live-alone widower much easier and I suspect greatly eased the grieving process. They say volunteering prolongs life, so perhaps in 20 years I will receive a congratulatory letter from King William!" says Mr Finley.
To learn more about National Volunteering Week or to find a volunteering option near you, head to the Volunteering Australia website.