The Interchange speech

Last night I was asked to speak about what I get out of volunteering. The speech went down well, people laughed, cried and applauded. So I thought I better pop it up here for your perusal.

The lovely Lou has asked me to speak on what it’s like being a Recreation Group Volunteer. And I apologise for mostly reading this, but it’s been a big week, I’ve had a minor operation, we’ve had our monthly Board Meeting today and it’s also annual reporting time for the Victorian Government.

Before I talk about what I get out of being a vollie, you need to know little bit about me and why I chose Interchange, because we all arrive here through different ways. Everyone’s path to this dinner tonight has taken several twists and turns, but here we all are, and may take this opportunity to say thank you to Interchange for hosting us, and also give a big thanks to the staff of Windows on the Bay, because being a gluten free vegan, I am not easy to cater for!

Working with Special Needs children and young adults is something I’ve done since I was a teenager, I’d volunteer with special schools and groups through all sorts of different ways and means. I also grew up probably about an hours drive away from one of the largest and most famous schools for children with Disabilities in the UK, Chailey Heritage. As well as a school, it has a peadiatric unit on site providing out-patient care to children from all over the South of England; they fit wheelchairs, leg braces, and other specialist equipment; they also provide respite care and residential beds for the school’s boarders who stay for anything from a week to the full school year, and then on top of all that also provide permanent 24/7 care for profoundly disabled children. You name it, at Chailey, they do it; the complex is, well complex. What is also remarkable is that the majority of the funding comes from charitable donations, and that their annual education reports are consistently OUTSTANDING. Their tagline is ‘Pursuing Potential’. Which I think is just glorious.

I used to help out with groups of children ranging from 8 years up to 18 or 19 years old who were schooled at Chailey when I was studying at a nearby College who ran a simple exchange scheme, particularly with the teenagers who wouldn’t mix with similar aged peers otherwise. We would take the pupils out, doing similar activities to Interchange, with a similar ethos; ensuring these wonderful people who do contribute to society are visible. For too long, people have been averting their eyes when someone in a wheelchair trundles past them. But no matter how hard you try, you cannot avoid 20 noisy rabble rousers, and that was just the helpers, literally doing a conga down the high street to raise money for funds.

As I grew into the big wide world in my early twenties, I used to teach deaf and hard of hearing children to swim using sign language. But because of the odd hours I worked as a swimming teacher, this was pretty much the only contact I had with a community of people I love spending time with. As my career changed and evolved, (I am older than I look), I had even less time to spend on myself, let along giving it to others and it wasn’t until I emigrated out to Melbourne two years ago, that I began to have the free time to pay it forward again. I was also looking to build up my network of friends as on my arrival here I knew precisely six people in Australia, one of which is my lovely, long-suffering husband.

The only problem was who, what, when, why and so on. Then one evening watching TV, I saw an advert for Interchange, and ran to my laptop. I looked through the pages on the website, getting more and more excited, phoned the office the next morning and was interviewed about a week later. I’ve been volunteering for probably 18 months now.

So what do I get out of it? That is the big question, but ask yourselves what do you get out of it? Is it hard work? Yes. Is it rewarding? Yes. Do I laugh? Repeatedly. Do I think, “What else can go wrong today?” Of course!

This isn’t easy, it isn’t supposed to be easy, but every experience you have with Interchange is like no other and will enrich and grow you in ways you never expected. You will have good days, you will have bad days. But it is how you cope with the tough times that will be the making of you. If nothing else, volunteering puts your life and little foibles sharply into perspective.

For those of you who are starting out on your volunteer journey, I would give this advice to you: Make sure you are happy to be there. Don’t ever turn up to a Recreation Group hung-over, in a bad mood, or play with your iPhone, or be any thing less than 100% determined to have a good day.

When you walk into a room, you bring your energy with you, and you know exactly what I mean, because you feel it too, and a really good example is when you hold out your hand to warmly shake someone’s hand you’ve just been introduced to, and you get the limp lettuce handshake back.

You’ve probably heard this before, only 7% of communication involves the words we speak, 38% is the tone and pitch of our voice. 55% of your communication is visual, your body language, how you make eye contact with people, the tension around your face and so on. If you are paired with a non-verbal buddy, don’t assume because they can’t speak, they don’t get you. Because they do, they know what energy and enthusiasm you are bringing to the group that day. It is your responsibility to find them, because they’re in there.

The parents involved with the Rec Groups are entrusting us vollies with a very special gift, the least we can do is treat that gift with respect, compassion, energy and simply how we want to be treated.

I can’t say I remember every trip out I’ve done, but some are memorable. My most recent outing with Interchange was to watch Shrek 4 in 3D, I was sitting next to Alex who is non-verbal, but hearing him laugh at the film will stay with me for a long time, but then so will a riotous ten-pin bowling trip which nearly gave the manager heart failure as the balls were thrown down the alleys. As will taking 2 mini-bus loads of students from Chailey, all in wheelchairs, on a booze-cruise to France.  We loaded up the wheel chair trays with slabs of beer, boxes of wine, French bread and chocolates. Walking through the French Hypermarket, about the same size as Costco, we got rather more stares than normal. In fact we’d brought so much, we had to put the students in the buses first, then pack all our purchases in around them. Us able bodied helpers ended up sitting with our knees round our ears, for a very uncomfortable drive back, much to the students hilarity.

On the flip side of the coin, yes, I’ve had horrible days, I went to the aquarium with Interchange where we had one child trying to strip off and swim with the fish; while another was screaming in frustration the whole way round – I know for damn sure we weren’t a popular group that day! But as exhausted as I was at the end of it, I had all seen the Penguins.

With everything you do in life, volunteering is what you make of it. If you go in with your heart open, you will have a good day. As the dates I volunteer get closer in my diary, I get excited, I work in a busy job, I am also studying part-time, but the Saturdays I give to Interchange are the highlights of my week (just don’t tell my husband). It is my time to do something I love doing. I feel useful, I feel valued, I get to visit places in Melbourne I’ve never been to before, I get much more out of being a vollie than I can put into words. Yes there are things I wish I could change, I wish there was more funding, I wish there weren’t waiting lists. But have I ever regretted over the past twenty years a single day where I gave my time as a gift to help out a family, charity or an association? Not once. Because even on a really chaotic day, the children give me so much more back, there is always a smile, a laugh or a quiet five minutes that make the day worthwhile.

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