Helping others for no reward

21:31, Feb 11 2013
Christine Grieder
ALTRUISTIC: Christine Grieder, left and her daughter Ellie Grieder.

They're the unsung heroes of New Zealand communities, small and large - the volunteers. Emanuel Stokes reports:

Every day, ordinary people from a variety of backgrounds give of their time to assist others for no material reward. Their dedication and generosity help to bolster the local economy, at little or no cost to the taxpayer, while their work with key local services can literally change or save lives.

They are the volunteers - people doing invaluable work, without whom society would function much less smoothly. Yet, for all this, their contributions to the community often go unnoticed.

Typically, volunteers work quietly but tirelessly behind the scenes, providing support to the causes and organisations that inspire them, without expecting public praise.

A little over a year ago their importance was brought to the fore. Nelson was in the national spotlight, as floods battered the region and a state of emergency was declared. Ordinary people of all backgrounds, including many who do not normally donate their time, pitched in to help neighbours and strangers alike.

Houses were evacuated, and families made temporarily homeless were offered the support of their fellow Nelsonians. Elsewhere, search and rescue teams, crewed with voluntary assistants, went out in the miserable weather to help those stranded or endangered by the flooding; while, as happened during the Christchurch earthquake, a student "volunteer army" set up a mission dedicated to helping those worst affected.


It is now well over a year since the floodwaters receded, and, by contrast, the region is enjoying its customary halcyon weather, yet the tireless, indispensable work of volunteers continues, if much more behind the scenes again.

Those who donate their time to St John New Zealand and the Coastguard are cases in point. Both organisations would struggle if it were not for the commitment of unpaid contributors - a sobering thought given the importance of the work they do.

In the event of an emergency, St John volunteers provide crucial on-the-ground support to injured people - assistance that can often mean the difference between life and death. Community first responders are on call to offer initial care in the event of an accident until an ambulance arrives on the scene, while ambulance volunteers assist medics in the crucial period between the injury and arrival at the hospital. During and after hospitalisation, St John representatives visit patients, providing company, comfort and extra support.

Sarah Martin from St John New Zealand highlights the importance of the support they receive from members of the public. "Volunteers are our lifeblood," she says. "They outnumber our paid employees by three to one."

In the Nelson region, 195 people contribute to St John, a service considered particularly important in isolated areas far from large medical centres.

The work done by Coastguard New Zealand is likewise of critical importance. Every year well over 1000 Coastguard operations occur involving the use of aerial or maritime vehicles. Several hundred of them are search and rescue jobs. With an army of nearly 2500 volunteers nationally who give an astonishing 300,000 hours annually, the organisation is able to continue its irreplaceable service to the public.

Coastguard New Zealand representative Cheryl Moffat says her organisation "simply couldn't operate without volunteers" given that "all the people who do the rescues" give their time on a voluntary basis.

In the Nelson region last year, nearly 1000 volunteer hours went into assisting people in distress at sea, involving around a dozen major operations.

Those who commit themselves to assisting the rescue missions have to give up their time to receive training, and remain on call to be available at any moment, often in dire weather and at all hours. This can involve the grim task of retrieving bodies as well as more straightforward jobs such as simply towing broken down boats back to shore.

"These people are going out when others are going home" Ms Moffat says. "They're worth their weight in gold."

While many voluntary organisations provide essential services to the community, individual efforts can also have a profound impact on the lives of those most in need. The remarkable efforts of Christine Grieder, based in Wakefield, illustrate this fact. Ms Grieder arrived in New Zealand from Switzerland in the 1990s, and moved to the Nelson area from Hokitika in 2001. Initially volunteering for Meals on Wheels and the local food bank, she gradually became inspired to find novel ways to help the poor and needy.

She derives her love of altruism from the example set by a Swiss relative, who fostered 100 children during her lifetime and used to provide parcels containing foods and gifts to the elderly at Christmas time. Another influence was American writer and advocate of compassion and self-sufficiency, Ernest Callenbach.

"When I came to Nelson . . . I got involved with the Te Korowai Trust and the food bank, and I remember a lady from the food bank said some families don't know how to make the best of the food that they received", she recalled.

So she designed the I Can Cookbook with the help of her daughter-in-law - a resource for poor families to make large, nutritious meals on a small budget. The book contains a wide range of meal ideas, is illustrated generously with photographs and has a complete index. She has distributed the cookbooks to hundreds of families with the assistance of local organisations.

But her inventiveness did not stop there. This initial venture expanded into a project that involved making craft and toy packs for children from poor families which she financed by selling items on Trade Me.

A buyer in Auckland advised her to seek a grant from the Mazda Foundation to continue her work which she subsequently did, winning a bid to receive financial assistance. With the support of the foundation she expanded her operations to sending the packs (containing toys, jewellery, felt material, ribbons, scissors and a carefully designed insert containing instructions on how to make a child's teddy out of the fabric provided) to the local women's refuge and the children's ward at the hospital. She continues to produce hundreds of these packs a year, in addition to her other, ongoing volunteering commitments.

One of these is her role as a "Supergran" - an older person helping young people develop life skills as a part of one of the many schemes developed by the local Te Korowai Trust, based in Stoke.

Myra Dick, CEO of the Te Korowai Trust, says "I don't think that there's a week goes by that she doesn't call in here with donations - she's just an amazing woman."

Her daughter, Ellie, assists her mother's projects in addition to doing voluntary work herself.

She describes her mother as a "modern-day Mother Theresa" and admits "if it wasn't for her I wouldn't be pursuing this sort of work at all - she's awesome". Another daughter, Medea-Magdalena, has also been a rock of support.

Another devotee of altruism is Dave Evans, until recently a dedicated volunteer at the Mission to the Seafarers. For years he assisted the crews of visiting ships, by manning the mission, based in the grounds of Port Nelson.

Recalling the importance of the mission's work and his early experiences, he reflected: "There were people from Papua New Guinea, working for five New Zealand dollars a day I think it was back then - there was a real need for a place for guys like that to go, because they couldn't afford to go into town."

In order to meet the needs of visiting workers, the mission developed a space where visitors on the ships could contact loved ones, have access to telephones and the internet, enjoy free refreshments, human company and relax for their duration in New Zealand.

"Some of the guys - I think, from China in particular - they'd leave home and it would be two years before they'd return. That's a significant chunk of your life."

Being able to get in contact with their families, and see their children via Skype was something that the users were "absolutely" appreciative of, he added.

On the face of it, engaging in unpaid work might seem an unrewarding prospect - yet it remains remarkably popular. According to government statistics, 1.2 million New Zealanders give 270 million hours of their time a year in uncompensated or voluntary employment annually.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, New Zealand leads the developed world in terms of the amount of time given freely to the community, on average 13 minutes every day.

What accounts for such world-beating generosity - what motivates Kiwis to give so much? "I get a satisfaction from doing it - you see people who are so grateful that they burst into tears," Lois Palmer, a stalwart of St Vincent De Paul's OpShop on Vanguard St, said.

Sister Colleen, her colleague, cited the vital work that St Vincent do at Christmas time as being particularly rewarding, and acknowledged the role that her faith plays in her service.

"I think it's knowing that it is an outreach to people in need that motivates me," she says. "St Vincent provides a much-needed service for people who are living on a benefit and even the cost of a towel in a Briscoes sale is beyond them."

A volunteer at the Salvation Army, who preferred not to be identified, described how her life experiences had spurred into awareness of the suffering of others, combined with a sense of the value of welfare. "I think we are fortunate to live in a society that does offer social benefits and I feel the need to give something back," she said.

While volunteering work may be both rewarding and relatively popular, supply is failing to meet the demand. According to Kathy Steele of Volunteer Nelson, people in the Nelson-Tasman region are among the most generous with their time in the country - yet there remains an unfulfilled call for voluntary work of all kinds.

"We always have a lot more vacancies than we are able to fill," she says. "One of the hidden areas where there's need is for committee members, as all community organisations require board members and I think a lot of people forget that." Sports organisations, local schools, marae and many other institutions required "ongoing" support, which was never fully satisfied. She encouraged anyone thinking of volunteering to "come in and talk to us".

"We've got listings for all kinds of jobs - it may be a few hours a week or a few hours a month, and I know that the community organisations would be incredibly appreciative of people coming in."

Given the scope of the roles available within the community sector, the rewarding nature of the work, and its sheer importance to society, volunteering is made for those who wish to do something special.

And, given what the statistics say about New Zealanders in this regard, it seems that it's a very Kiwi thing to do.