Time's up for volunteering

From Insight, 8:12 am on 20 December 2019

Insight - As lives become busier, organisations say the selfless task of volunteering is in danger of fading away, making it difficult for some essential services to survive. But as Insight's Teresa Cowie finds out, some people are finding novel ways to keep doing their bit.

Time's up for volunteering 27 min 58 sec

In a brief break from washing bottles and preparing 7-month-old baby Finn's morning tea, Christchurch mum Zoe Hector directs a blind man around the various buttons and dials of an unfamiliar washing machine.

The man is staying at a friend's apartment in Denmark and wants to wash his T-shirts. At home, he'd easily feel his way around his own machine, but on this day, he doesn't want to bother his friend, who's gone out.

Hector is helping the man by video call, via an app called Be My Eyes. The interaction is quick; it takes only a couple of minutes as Hector gets him to train his camera on the washing machine's dials, and guides him as he turns it on. Both parties are polite and chirpy, but there's not too much chit-chat. They get the job done and get on with the remainder of their days.

Volunteering used to be a big part of Hector's life. But since the arrival of her first child, she devotes all her time to the most unrelenting of unpaid work - parenting. Like a lot of people in their 30s and 40s, volunteering has had to be pushed aside as the realities of raising a family take priority.

Before Finn was born, Hector loved helping out on a more regular basis for the Blind Foundation, but for now, almost all of her time is spoken for.

"To be honest I just don't see, in the next few years, how it's going to be possible to go back to those really time intensive things I used to do.

"I'm on maternity leave from my day job as an audiologist. And yeah, it's [looking after her baby] pretty crazy."

Volunteering contributes $3.5 billion to the economy; it's about the same size as the construction industry.

But Volunteering New Zealand chief executive Dr Katie Bruce says as people get busier, and paid work changes, it's in danger.

"Volunteering is hugely relied upon, massively undervalued, and at real risk if we don't engage with this generation."

While the number of people volunteering has risen, trends show people are giving up fewer hours of their time. Between 2004 and 2013 volunteering hours dropped by 42 percent. Bruce says those figures are a stark wake-up call.

"We really have to take that seriously and say, 'What are we going to do? How are we going to engage people differently so that volunteering is more accessible?'"

Bruce says family life, flexible work and unpredictable paid work are leaving people very little opportunity to commit to, or schedule volunteering into their lives. And she says people are turning to more episodic styles of volunteering.

For Hector, it was technology that stepped in to bring volunteering back into her routine. What she does via the Be My Eyes app is known as 'micro-volunteering' - no pressure, no commitment, one-off tasks to help others. She has joined the 2.2 million other volunteers from around the world who have signed up to the site to help its 133,000 blind users. The app joins up callers with people who speak the same language and are in similar time zones. When a notification pops up and the ring tone starts pinging, she can pick up a video call and help someone with an everyday task.

The Be My Eyes app connects blind users with millions of volunteers

The Be My Eyes app connects blind users with millions of volunteers Photo: RNZ / Teresa Cowie

Hector likens using Be My Eyes to helping someone in the street; you don't need to know each other's life story. It's just a brief interaction and you're both on your way. She gets a lot out of helping with the small tasks like identifying what's in a jar in the pantry, or whether the bread a person's about to put in the toaster is past its use by date.

"I like to think we're empowering people who are blind or low vision to be more independent and not have somebody [a carer] with them all the time."

There's no pressure to pick up a call when she gets a notification, because there are thousands of other users, so Hector only has to do what she can, when she can.

"This is a really nice, little simple thing that I can do. It only takes a few seconds to answer a call. And you can still feel like you're doing something in the world."

Flexible work, and the constant digital connectedness that allows work to leak into our leisure hours, can be an obstacle for people trying to separate out their time. And you don't get much more flexible and time-consuming work than running your own business.

But like Hector, Wellingtonian Michelle Stronach-Marsh is also finding creative ways to fit volunteering into her life.

She runs her own bathroom design company, leads a Girl Guides group, and is a parent to three adopted children who are in their teens and early 20s; she's a self confessed 'giver'.

"I am a really passionate person and when I sink my heart and soul into something I really go for it."

Stronach-Marsh's days are rammed full, but she has one more problem in her community she wants to solve. And she's found a way to multi-task her volunteering, by taking up 'plogging': a portmanteau of "jogging" and "plocka upp", Swedish for "picking-up". The two come together as picking up rubbish while jogging.

With plogging, she's also getting fit. In the two years Stronach-Marsh has been pounding the litter-strewn streets and beaches, she's lost 20kgs. She's also making time for herself; watching birds and noticing the beauty around her. She's plogging seven days - during the week she's up at 6am and at the weekends she heads down to the beach about 3pm.

On this particular plog along Petone beach, Stronach-Marsh fills her lime-green trug to overflowing as the mid-winter daylight begins its early departure behind the hills.

She's disappointed that only three items can be recycled. As she reluctantly pours the rest into the landfill bin at the end of Petone Wharf, she's approached by locals curious to know what she's up to. Many of the people who stop for a chat think she is paid to keep the beach clean, she says. It's one of the big struggles faced by volunteering organisations; people assume helpers are paid. Stronach-Marsh proudly wears her 'Keep New Zealand Beautiful' t-shirt, but she's thinking of having a hi-vis vest printed with the words 'volunteer' on the back. She says this happens frustratingly often, but deals with it by explaining what's going on and trying to recruit people to the clean-up cause. To get the message out, she's started using social media to show others how they can fit volunteering like this into their busy lives. By uploading photos of her daily rubbish hauls, she's also trying to encourage others already in the plogging community to stick with it.

While Stronach-Marsh is happy to give away a lot of her time to a good cause, she has none for people who think they're too busy to volunteer.

"Every single person, if they really looked deep, they have five, ten minutes… People sometimes are thinking too big... It's just a matter of giving what you can".

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It's a Friday evening and Zoe Hector is aboard a plane waiting to take off from Christchurch. She's heading to Wellington for the weekend, where she'll stay with a friend, to have her first unbroken sleep since the arrival of baby Finn.

Much to the disappointment of passengers belted in and eager to get going, the pilot announces over the loudspeaker that one of the engines is broken and the plane will be on the tarmac until further notice.

A passenger gets out of their seat and begins pacing up the aisle. It's Hector. She's got a bar of chocolate that she's broken up into small pieces and is sharing it with the other grounded passengers who are also contemplating how they will reschedule their evening and weekend plans.

Even when life is so hectic that she has to schedule time away to get a decent sleep, Hector doesn't seem to miss an opportunity to help others as and when she can.

*This story was first published on RNZ on the 7th July, 2019

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