When you look across the room inside your local bustling community hall, when it’s packed with books, secondhand treasures or fundraisers, there are sure to be a crew of volunteers ferreting away in the background. Volunteers are on the other side of the barbecue outside Bunnings, in high-vis vests looking after people at a march to Parliament, under steaming hot first aid tents at your kid’s rugby match.  

Volunteering is a vital building block in the foundation of Aotearoa. Most of us have given our time to volunteer at some point - whether that was coaching your niece’s football team, supervising at your child’s first school dance, picking up rubbish with a local beach clean-up, or volunteering for a charity or organisation like New Zealand Red Cross. Volunteers undoubtedly have a huge impact across Aotearoa. In fact, without volunteers, many small businesses and charities simply could not exist.  

I started volunteering when I was 11 years old and haven't stopped. I still remember the first time I volunteered. As a young person I got up each year well before dawn to help with taking care of people at Anzac Day services, sometimes even providing first aid. I remember there being weather extremes – one time was so hot that people were fainting, and another on a wet, windy, cold and miserable day we all got saturated - but we persevered. Looking back, I did everything from helping at fundraising events, car washes, sausage sizzles, directing parking and catering for volunteers. As I got older, I provided first aid at events and trained young people as well as fellow volunteers.  

Volunteering has always been a huge part what makes me, me. I’m privileged in my current job to support amazing volunteers and members, and the programmes they make possible.   

It seems to me that being a volunteer is an integral part of what we believe is best about being a Kiwi: generosity, goodwill, community spirit and ingenuity.  But I also think there is more to be understood about what drives us to sacrifice our time and energy. And perhaps if we can understand this, then we can continue to channel generous Kiwi’s goodwill into positive use! 

1. Passion

In past times, people would tell me that they volunteered because they wanted to give back to their community. They had been helped in some way, and felt they needed to repay a debt. But more recently, it seems that people are led by passion. The most dedicated volunteers that I’ve met in the past few years have been those that fervently believe in the cause or issue they are addressing through their volunteering work. Enough that they are willing to give their time, effort, commitment or platform.  

For example, I have always been drawn toward causes focused on building strong communities, empowering young people or preserving the environment, and organisations that allow diverse communities an equitable opportunity to lead, participate and be heard.  

I'm also passionate about supporting people in need, regardless who they are, which is why I’m drawn to the principles that guide the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.  

In the current climate we need only to look around us to understand what people, particularly young adults, are passionate about. Recent headlines around climate change and Black Lives Matter show us the lengths that young people will go to to defend, protect or fight for what they believe in. 

It's imperative that we understand and harness the incredible passion of young people, and empower them to fight for what they believe in. In my experience, young people are anything but apathetic, and they are looking for ways to channel their passion.  

2. Social connections

You may be surprised to learn that, in a disaster, the strength of your social connections is one of the key measures on how well you will get through and recover. Social connectedness is vital to every aspect of our life.  

And yet, as you’ve heard before, we are more connected than ever, yet lonelier than we ever have been. We've been offered many different ways to make contact with the people in our neighbourhood just as easily as our loved ones across the ocean. But these connections can seem, in many cases, less fulfilling than face-to-face relationships. This is why it shouldn’t surprise us that many people choose to volunteer for social reasons. Being connected is so important.  

However, during the COVID-19 Alert Level 4 lockdown, we all discovered that keeping connected, even when we couldn’t be together, can take many different forms. Many of us adapted in the way that we work and interact with people, discovering new ways to maintain friendships and connections. So, as we look to the future of volunteering, perhaps we can consider not only the ways that volunteering can facilitate physical social connection, but also new innovative digital connections.   

3. Learning something

Many volunteering roles provide an opportunity to learn, to develop skills or build knowledge. In some cases, voluntary roles require you to train in specialised skills that most people would never be exposed to - learning how to save a life with first aid skills, or the tools you need to support a family who are new to Aotearoa in their first few months. In other cases, volunteering can be a step in an education or employment journey, a way to learn something new that will be of value in a future role or career.  

Though there are people who don’t necessarily start volunteering thinking that they are undertaking a learning journey, usually once they get going, they realise all the possibilities: to grow, develop and learn along the way. Capitalising on the desire to keep learning is a huge benefit to volunteering. At a minimum, you may help your community by training up someone who will be an asset to their neighbourhood. And, at best, you will inspire a volunteer to stay involved for the long haul as a committed team member.  

So what?

It's not lost on me that these three themes link closely with three of the Five Ways to Wellbeing: Connect - Me Whakawhanaunga, Give - tukua, Keep Learning - me ako tonu. As we still reel from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Aotearoa and around the world, being conscious of our own wellbeing is more critical than ever. Volunteering can be a great way to keep connected, to learn and give your time, your presence or your words - while supporting your wellbeing to keep healthy and happy.  

The theme for National Volunteer Week 2020 is Te Hua o te Mahi Tahi – The Benefit of Working Together. I've looked back with pride on what Kiwis have been able to achieve over the past few months by working together to keep each other safe and well. While the enforced lockdown didn’t leave much room for negotiation, we as a nation did essentially volunteer to do our bit to eliminate COVID-19 in New Zealand and protect the people we love.  

For many, lockdown presented a significant challenge. The impacts of COVID-19 will be long-lasting and, in many cases, painful. But as a nation we worked together for the cause we believed in, we did our best to keep connected throughout with our loved ones, neighbours and whānau, and we learned that together our team of five million can achieve whatever we put our minds to, together. Now we're edging closer to normality, I hope that we can keep up this momentum.