Lending a hand helps everybody
Walking into a room full of young Australian volunteers preparing for deployment is a great lesson in tempering preconceptions and avoiding stereotypes. It’s easy to imagine all volunteers being of the same ilk; ultra-progressive, left wing, vegetarian…
I am joking of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised if readers were nodding in agreement as I said that. I admit that I had that image firmly planted in my head as I walked in to my first major briefing session, wondering frantically if I would fit in with the group that was already there.
This, after all, was my first real encounter with the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) Program, which places passionate young Australians (18-30) on short-term assignments in developing countries in Asia, the Pacific and Africa.
Here’s the extraordinary, powerful side of Australian culture that too often goes unnoticed by even our own people. Lending a hand to one’s neighbor isn’t a chore, a monumental gathering of effort. For Australians, it’s just a part of who we are.
In that room and in so many rooms I have been in since that moment, I was privileged to be swept away by the diversity of people representing their country, representing my country, who were prepared and willing to give their time, their efforts, their particular expertise for the benefit of our international neighbours.
In my intake alone there were bankers, archeologists, public servants, professionals, lawyers, uni students, tradesmen, surfers, cricketers, nurses, therapists, the list goes on and on…
It is a testament to the strength of our collective character that not only do Australians from all walks of life, all backgrounds and cultures, political, social and religious leanings, constantly and continuously raise their hands to give of themselves to the people and places that need them the most, but that also successive governments, themselves of varying political and social leanings, continue to value and support and fund volunteer programs so that we can help where help is most needed.
As an AYAD, volunteers work with local counterparts in host organisations to share knowledge and skills, with the aim to strengthen mutual understanding between Australia and host countries through making a positive contribution to sustainable development.
The benefits extend back home as well.
Sending motivated, driven, talented Australians overseas to places and situations which may be lacking resources, expertise, corporate knowledge or certain skills is a three pronged fork; firstly, it directly benefits the host organization, providing them with the skills they require to both build the capacity of existing staff as well as make use of the new talents brought by the volunteer.
Secondly, as in many cases the volunteer is the first contact with an Australian many people have, it is a wonderful form of ambassadorship for our own country. Preconceptions and even misconceptions go both ways, and too often it is too easy for the outside world to prejudge us and our country based on stereotypes, some positive and some unfortunately negative.
In my experience, the sight of Australian Volunteers, so clearly diverse in both background and skill, is an incredibly positive reflection of our multicultural, multi-talented community.
Finally, thankfully, it is also a great motivator for those who volunteer, with Australia directly reaping the benefits.
Former volunteers have used their experiences and lessons learnt while on assignment to return to Australia and form local and international charities, increase their community involvement, give back by joining, running and even leading community and social organizations whose sole purpose is the betterment and success of our own society.
I am a proud returned volunteer. Proud of my experience but more so proud that my country places such importance on the worth of such programs, that we take the chance to send Australians far and wide to help and to learn from other people and cultures.
Proud to bring my experiences, successes and failures back home and use that combined knowledge to continue my involvement with both international development and local community development.
For most of us, we leave the country doe-eyed and eternally optimistic, assured, regardless of any warnings given to us prior to departure that we will inevitably change the world with one fell swoop. The reality is of course far less poetic and glamorous than that, however we come back with far more than dreams, and far beyond skepticism.
We come back with experience; tangible, real world experience of what it takes to live and work in a developing country, hands on experience of the difficulties and issues around international development, in most cases a renewed optimism of the possibilities and power of cooperative work.
While we may have left home believing the world needs saving, it quickly becomes apparent that even those of us whose focus has long been beyond our own borders, misconceptions and preconceptions inevitably form over the course of a lifetime.
By living and working amongst people of other cultures, those social barriers quickly fall, and our own perceptions of the world are changed, sometimes subtly and sometimes in great strokes. At the very least, the experience reinforces just how right they were to call this the Lucky Country.
On the other end of the scale, they serve to inspire a lifelong commitment to our home. I spent a lifetime wanting to do more, be more, help more.
In 2007 I was fortunate enough to be assigned to Habitat for Humanity Bangladesh. From creating a marketing and fundraising platform to Program Evaluation to the development of Habitat Bangladesh’s first disaster rehabilitation program, I immersed himself in Bangladeshi language and culture, and helped revamp the Resource Development Department of the organisation.
In the process, although I couldn’t foresee how far it would go at the time, I helped start my organization, the Big Bang Ballers, which uses the game of basketball to fight youth poverty and social disadvantage around the world.
Being a volunteer not only allowed me to help those in developing countries, it gave me the experiences to realize how much could be done right here in Australia, how much need, more than ever, there is for helping hands right here.
See the criticisms we sometimes hear about spending money and time to send aid and people overseas aren’t unreasonable. As lucky as we are, as blessed as we are, there are plenty of things we can improve.
We face under-education of over 9% of our population, an indigenous population still dying of preventable diseases, homelessness beyond what should be acceptable by any standards, families below the poverty line and more depression and angst amongst our youth than should ever exist.
These aren’t issues in far flung countries with decades upon decades of natural disasters, over-population, poor resources and unlucky circumstances. This is our home, our own country.
Yet we gain so much from the experience of volunteering, of working in the developing world. We learn so much about not only how to solve those problems overseas, but also to bring those skills back to Australia and apply them here.
Returned volunteers are now working with Generation One, the Red Cross, local and federal government departments, as committed, motivated, inspired volunteers and employees doing more than their fair share to help solve the problems here at home just as much as they are to eliminating poverty overseas.
I have a confession to make. I lied before about losing that doe-eyed optimism. It never leaves you, it just becomes more focused.
We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give, said Sir Winston Churchill.
Our volunteer programs teach us how and remind us why we continue to give, both at home and abroad.
They give us perspective, give us context, teach us how best to help others, and in the process help ourselves.
They send the message to the outside world that we care enough to send our young people, our experts, our passionate game-changers to some of the most demanding places on earth, knowing that our best and brightest demand that the values and principles of equality and justice and human rights, which come so naturally to Australians, are rightfully inherited by all around us.
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