Ashlee Merucci reflects on volunteering in a pandemic
What does it mean to be a volunteer?
This is a question that was frequently asked in the HUMA330: Community Engagement unit I was enrolled in back in Semester 1, 2020. This same question is one I would consider and reflect on for a long time after completing that unit. In uncertain times, like the present, it is reassuring to look back at the past and see how, what at the time seemed like disruptions and misadventures, unexpectedly lead to a life-altering opportunity I never thought I’d find myself in.
Enrolling in HUMA330, I expected and was intrigued, to complete a voluntary placement at a not-for-profit organisation, which would make up a large portion of the course. The organisation I would complete this placement with was entirely up to me. This felt odd, having had little autonomy while doing my previous units. In the first few weeks, representatives from different not-for-profit organisations visited ACU to introduce potential volunteering experiences to the class. I recall being fascinated by every organisation I learnt about, picturing myself in the roles they were describing. I began sending off applications to numerous organisations, some introduced to us in class, others I discovered independently. In preparation, I obtained my Blue Card, Working with Children Check and CPR, and First Aid Certificate.
I’d eventually hear back from St Vincent de Paul Society’s charity store (Vinnies) in Newstead, which was one of the first organisations I had applied for. I loved my interview, meeting other volunteers and staff, and was elated when the owner offered me a position. My start date was set at one week from the day of my interview, assuming my Criminal Record Check would be completed by then. It was. Unfortunately, between the time of my initial meeting and my start date, Queensland was put into its first lockdown in response to COVID-19.
This lockdown meant that Vinnies would be closed, and written assessments would substitute the placement portion of the unit. I felt disheartened. After meeting with the store owner and other volunteers I couldn’t wait to be involved with the community. I felt selfish for being upset about the sudden change of plans when I knew others were much worse off. I comforted myself with the promise that when safe and permitted, I would continue to volunteer either at Vinnies or elsewhere.
University shifted to online learning and stayed that way for the remainder of the semester. This gave me a few extra hours every week, as I no longer needed to commute to campus, so I used this time to research possible volunteering roles. I remembered a website shown to us in class that made finding volunteering opportunities simple, so I scanned that regularly for any compatible positions. With being thrown in my direction from my lecturer, I stumbled across my dream volunteering position at UnitingCare.
There were a few months between my initial application and hearing back from the organisation, as they had ceased all face-to-face volunteering roles throughout the lockdown and reduced voluntary services. Those months were filled with on-again-off-again lockdowns, the beginning of my COVID-19 bread baking saga and eagerness to begin volunteering.
When I did hear back, I was invited to complete multiple online applications. After a few weeks of hearing nothing, I received a phone call; I was accepted to the next stage. I was relieved to hear that my applications were successful, but I was nervous at the same time, worried that other applicants might have more knowledge of the field. The next steps included phone calls with the volunteering coordinator, video interviews, reference checks, and two days of intensive online training. I left excited, yet slightly overwhelmed. I was to start my role in Intensive Family Support Services (IFSS).
I had done a lot of research on the organisation after sending off my initial application and was aware of its mission to improve the health and wellbeing of individuals, families, and communities. The role I had been accepted for assists families, often disadvantaged, in ways such as emotional support, budgeting, guidance for healthy lifestyles, access to support groups for emotional and physical abuse, and educational resources. I couldn’t wait to be a part of an organisation that was committed to the bettering of others’ lives.
My first day came around quickly. My first home visit was with a single mother who had recently been reinstated with access rights of her three children. During the visit, the client and I devised a plan addressing family bonding activity, meal plans; and health appointments to assist with the transition to reunifying the family. After returning to the office, filling out file notes, and scheduling the next visit, I sat in my car and reflected on what was one of the most fulfilling days of my life. A sense of contentment came over me. I had inadvertently convinced myself that if the volunteering experience was something that didn’t feel right, my future career path might not be suitable for me. I drove home that day with the biggest smile on my face, relieved that the role came naturally to me, and I was sure I was making the right decision with my future career.
Throughout the application and interview stages, I thought this experience was going to look great on a resume and teach me skills to help with my career. I quickly learnt that this role was just as much for others as it was for me. What I was getting out of this opportunity was matched by what I was giving in the ways of passion, dedication, and commitment to helping clients. The joy I felt after my first day stayed with me for weeks. I finally found a way to use my time, passion, and skills to make a positive change in my community.
Over the following few months I was referred a variety of cases. Some cases involved tutoring high school students; some required transporting families to and from meetings and school; one had mefinding holiday activities for families. Taking on new clients was both difficult and rewarding. Being exposed to extremely disadvantaged families shocked and upset me, but ultimately inspired me to continue doing my part to help.
I learnt so much during my volunteering role, both about myself and about my communities. Connecting with like-minded people, who dedicate their time to help those less fortunate than them, and the families I saw weekly, is an experience I cherish. This memory is especially valuable now, as I write this reflection while on the verge of another lockdown. For me, 2021 has been a year of self-reflection. Unable to control what’s happening throughout the world, I find myself reminiscing about things that have made me happy and kept me connected. With this practice, my mind often returns to my experience as a volunteer. I think I can finally answer the question what does it mean to be a volunteer? To me, being a volunteer means using the time, energy, and skills I have acquired, to contribute to a cause bigger than myself.