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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Volunteers backbone of our community

Volunteers backbone of our community

Last updated 10:47 21/06/2011
Volunteering provides an invaluable contribution to the smooth running of our communities. It provides frameworks that are essential during times of disaster.

In the nine months since the first earthquake, we have seen thousands upon thousands of selfless acts of volunteering in Canterbury.

After the earthquakes everyone became a volunteer - everyone did something to help others, family members, friends, neighbours, even strangers in the street.

In the first instance people just did what was needed to ensure others were safe and provided for.

But as time went by most people slotted themselves into some communal helping project. We responded to calls for volunteer help from all kinds of community groups and social service providers.

Existing volunteering and civil defence organisations became the first point of call, but new networks also developed. Everyone wanted to help and many people contacted me to offer their services.

You need a framework to use people effectively. I had a small team that worked with me, but I plugged others into the Farmy Army system, the Student Volunteer Army and the Christchurch City Council organisers.

It was interesting to see the different models in action. The Farmy Army grafted onto existing farming networks, contacting volunteers by phone and through community groups.

The Student Volunteer Army used social media networks as a platform for volunteering - students could commit online to jobs or turn up to pick up work.

This soon became a sought- after model internationally. Student army organiser Sam Johnson did such a fine job in his role that he was invited to Japan to teach the pattern of social media communication to university students there.

There were many examples of volunteer groups swinging into action, like the Rangiora Earthquake Express helicopter flying hot meals into areas difficult to access, or volunteer knitters spending countless hours knitting hats, beanies and blankets before winter set in.

Church groups shuttled hot soup and essential supplies all over their parishes and beyond, while resourceful locals responded to their communities' need for essential information updates by preparing and delivering printed newsletters.

Let's acknowledge also the valuable contribution of the ethnic communities during the earthquakes - the Koreans, Somalis, Chinese, the Buddhist community, and so many others. All wanted to pitch in and help, even when they had suffered damage to their own homes and businesses.

As we reflect on the devastating and ongoing events of the past nine months, Volunteer Awareness Week (June 19-25) is a time to recognise not only individual volunteers but also the frameworks in place in times of need.

These frameworks are important, and communal volunteer projects need to be linked into the bigger organisations to maximise volunteer power.

Research tells us that the better connected people are, and the more people are linked to existing organisations, the easier it is to mobilise when disaster strikes.

Volunteering New Zealand says one of the key objectives of Volunteer Awareness Week is to encourage more people to volunteer, "raising people, not money" being the catchphrase.

I like this focus on raising people. Fostering goodwill among the people is what makes volunteering just happen.

It goes without saying that volunteering has become a way of life here in Christchurch and Canterbury. As so many people have said to me in the past nine months, "well, you just do it, don't you, you just get in there and help!"

* Nicky Wagner is a National Party list MP based in Christchurch.

- The Press

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