MATTERS OF PUBLIC INTEREST;Volunteering – 15 Aug 2012

Last night in this place during the adjournment debate, I had the pleasure of listening to one of my colleagues, Senator Thistlethwaite, speaking on volunteering. I was really interested in what he had to say. He talked about how the volunteering spirit reflects the character of our nation. He also spoke about the benefits and challenges of volunteering, especially in regard to the way society is changing and the rapidly changing landscape of technology and social spaces. In many ways I agree with Senator Thistlethwaite—and Senator Thistlethwaite obviously realises the importance of volunteering—but today I speak about a few groups of young people who realise the importance of volunteering.

It has long been considered a rite of passage for young people to broaden their experiences by travelling overseas and exploring the world. We all know what the gap year is—a lot of young people after Year 12, or before they go to university, or even while they are going through university, might take a year off and travel the world to see the sights. Some choose to work, but a number of people tend to travel the world.

There appears to be an increasing trend towards young people not just exploring the world but seeking to change it too. In this, I am talking about the concept known as volunteer holidays. The idea of a volunteer holiday is pretty much what the phrase implies. Like any overseas holiday, you go to enjoy the sights, the sounds and the smells of another location, but in this aspect you combine your sightseeing with volunteer work to help out the communities you visit. Unlike a typical holiday, it may not be as relaxing but it is so much more rewarding.

I understand this firstly because of my own personal experience. About a year and a half ago, my husband Robert and I joined the Passionist Pilgrimage to orphanages in Ho Chi Minh City. I will not speak about that today, as I have delivered a speech in this place previously about our amazing experiences in doing that volunteer work. But what I will say is that this journey did not just benefit the children that we helped and supported; it was also of great personal benefit to both me and my husband, and to everybody else in the group. I know it is a cliche, but the pilgrimage to Ho Chi Minh City was truly a life-changing experience. Not only was it a great source of pride and personal achievement but also it helped me to gain a greater appreciation for my own good fortune.

Just last week, my husband returned from two weeks in Kenya volunteering by building chicken coops. Anyone who knows my husband might have a little giggle about that because he is not necessarily the best handyman around but, even so, he did go and he helped build these chicken coops. He is a statistician, so he was very good with the tape measure and measuring and cutting the wood, he tells me. On that trip were two young people from Hobart, Sam and Richard Thompson. Sam is 17 and Richard is 14, and they went on this trip without their parents. Sam had heard about the trip to go and work as volunteers in these orphanages, and he raised $8,000 to pay his own way and to buy 100 pairs of shoes and some other things for the children in these orphanages. He is a home-schooled child, so he did not have the benefit of raising money through his school environment, so he did this by busking. I would just like to say to Richard: ‘You are going to be one of the great people in our future. Not only your contribution in going but the effort that you made to get there was, I know, truly appreciated.’

Volunteering overseas is not just something that enriches the lives of the people we are helping; it enriches our own lives as well. That is why I am pleased to work with schools in my home state of Tasmania that are giving students these experiences. In March this year, I farewelled a group of 23 students from Huonville High School who travelled to Vietnam and Cambodia to provide help to impoverished communities. Huonville High School has been undertaking this trip annually since 2010, and the students, under the leadership of their very inspiring teacher Nicola Smith, established a group called Students Working Against Poverty, or SWAP.

SWAP conduct various activities to raise awareness about extreme poverty, and they also conduct fundraising activities to help with their annual trips to Vietnam and Cambodia. One of their major fundraisers is Coffee 4 a Cause, a coffee stall run by students at local events which not only raises money for SWAP but helps students to gain valuable barista skills. They actually have their own barista cart, and they take it around to all of the local activities—the Huon show and things like that—and sell coffee and make money. They are also trained in how to do that properly and, might I say, it is very good coffee. Of course, it is fair trade coffee, so it is very good coffee.

The SWAP students have undertaken a number of projects on their trips. In 2010, they helped build a fish pond for a primary school near Siem Reap which has given the children at the school a source of protein for their diet. In 2011 they raised funds to help build a library at Enkosa River School, at which volunteers provide free English tuition for over 300 street kids. During their 2012 trip, the students tidied and landscaped the yard of a Cambodian health outreach centre run by an organisation called Green Gecko. Founded by Australian Tania Palmer, Green Gecko provides education, food and health care for street kids, many of whom have been victims of domestic abuse, homelessness and drug use. SWAP has grown dramatically and now has 100 members across all grades at the school. The program has become so popular that trips are also being organised for adults, including parents and former students, to undertake volunteer programs such as teaching.

There are other schools in my local area that have been arranging volunteer holidays recently as well. In January this year, students from Geilston Bay High School studying Global Connections travelled to Vanuatu to construct a water tank for a village. A water tank of the kind constructed by the Geilston Bay students can supply clean drinking water to around 200 people. This tank was constructed from bricks and mortar, which provided construction skills not only for the children but for the local villagers who assisted them. Because of the hot climate in Vanuatu, plastic water tanks tend to not last very long; they tend to melt and buckle in the heat. The importance of access to clean, safe drinking water is something we take for granted in the developed world, but for those who do not have access it can be a matter of life and death. Dirty and unhygienic water can be a major source of water-borne diseases which can lead to a high incidence of child mortality.

Prior to travelling to Vanuatu, the Global Connections needed $1,500 to fund their project. The class ran a raffle and sought sponsorship for a 24-kilometre walk from Gagebrook in Hobart’s very northern suburbs to Wrest Point Casino. Their major fundraiser was a cocktail party and art auction for which the students catered, sold tickets, performed music, made speeches and conducted various other organisational tasks. The Vanuatu trip was a major education in cultural awareness for the Geilston Bay High students, as they learnt local cooking, enjoyed a village feast, learned about local life and customs and learned to fish using traditional methods.

A more recent trip was undertaken by nine students from Fahan School—and they were all girls—to Vietnam for the 2012 World Challenge. During their three-week trip, they spent a week volunteering at the Quang Nam centre for the homeless and disabled in Hoi An. The students had raised money for the centre, which was used to purchase a washing machine, walking frames, wheelchairs, medicines and food. In a story about the trip on the Fahan School’s website, several of the students recount how the experience has given them a greater appreciation of their own standard of living.

Volunteer holidays have also been popular with schools in the north of Tasmania. Last year, during the September school holidays, nine students from Scotch Oakburn College spent 10 days in the highlands of Timor Leste as part of their international service program. For part of the trip they stayed at Encouragement House in Maliana and taught English to students at Maliana high school. One of the most compelling experiences for the Scotch Oakburn students was hearing the horrific stories about the treatment of the Timorese during Indonesian occupation yet being surprised at their sense of hope and optimism.

In late 2010, 11 students from Smithton High School participating in the ruMAD? program, which I have spoken about in this place before, went on a trip to Vietnam where they visited three orphanages: the Home of Affection, Tam Ky Baby Orphanage and Hoi An Orphanage. The students donated their time as well as gifts they had collected from the school community, including soft toys, sports equipment, soccer tops, stickers, balloons and pencils. The students were fortunate to have been accompanied by Carrie Hesketh, a friend of Smithton High School teacher Nick Hill. Ms Hesketh had set up an orphanage in Vietnam four years ago and is fluent in Vietnamese. The students had planned to visit Thailand but the trip had to be called off because of political unrest in the country. Instead of visiting Thailand, the students conducted a variety of fundraisers for poverty alleviation in the country, including face-painting, sausage sizzles and a Thai dinner—and they raised a whopping $32,000.

I am grateful to the students and staff of all the schools in Tasmania and across Australia who have supported aid and development projects overseas. I would strongly recommend to schools that if they want to organise an overseas excursion to make it a volunteer holiday.

There are other organisations that can help find information and make contact with relevant agencies. In my home state, the Tasmanian Centre for Global Learning provides useful advice and support, and has a particular emphasis on helping schools. For individuals who want to extend their experience and travel for, say, three months, six months or a year, the Australian government can connect people with volunteer opportunities through the aid agency, AusAid. The not-for-profit group, Australian Volunteers International, also provides a variety of volunteering opportunities throughout the world. While there are many people overseas in need of our help and support, volunteer holidays can also be taken locally.

Soon after the Black Saturday bushfires, a number of Tasmanian members of Timber Communities Australia and Rotary International travelled to provide assistance. The volunteers started work on the arduous task of replacing some 4,000 kilometres of fencing in Traralgon South, travelling to Victoria in small teams in one-week rotations. It was my great pleasure then to be available to farewell the first team of volunteers from the Bruny Island branch of Timber Communities Australia, who left in May 2009.

After the Queensland floods in 2011, thousands of people turned up at volunteer registration centres ready to help with the recovery and reconstruction. Volunteers not only came from interstate but from around the world. The small town of Mitchell reported having volunteers from the UK, Switzerland, France and Germany.

Working holidays have a number of benefits for those who participate. It allows participants to broaden their cultural experiences, to gain knowledge of other countries and their languages, customs and social norms. They can gain some valuable work skills through the help that they give, as well as the skills of planning, project management and teamwork that go into their projects. They can get a broader perspective, as they come into contact with people who experience poverty and disadvantage of the kind most Australians will never truly understand.

While we hear a lot about the poverty and disadvantage that people in developing countries suffer, seeing it firsthand has far greater educational value. If young people have volunteered overseas, it is highly valued by employers. Not only do employers value the skill, knowledge and self-organisation that students on volunteer holidays gain; they really value the personal experiences. There is a maturity, a personal development and a greater sense of self that comes with travelling and experiencing the world. But none of these benefits will match what I consider to be the greatest benefit of all—the personal satisfaction that you have changed lives and actually helped to make the world a better place.

As part of a student’s study or as a life experience, volunteer holidays create a lasting impression that no other part of the school curriculum could possibly deliver. It is an experience that will positively affect them forever and make a deep and indelible mark on their soul. I can tell that from the stories recounted to me by students who have had these experiences. In their presentation about the Vanuatu project, the Geilston Bay students said that prior to the trip they all mixed in different circles at school; now they are all good friends. Volunteering overseas or even within your own country gives you the kinds of memories that will last forever. I know this because I have been fortunate enough to have lived it.