More than 400 volunteers throughout a large area of the South Island are being honoured for their work for cancer patients.
The Cancer Society's Canterbury West Coast Rural Division, comprising 16 separate volunteer groups, was receiving the inaugural Health Volunteers of the Year Award in Wellington on Monday.
The volunteers meet a wide range of needs for cancer patients and the community, from transporting patients to hospital appointments and back, home visits, baking and fundraising.
The area they cover extends from Waimate, Fairlie and Twizel to Kaikoura, Reefton, Greymouth, Hokitika, Ellesmere, Diamond Harbour and Christchurch, and one of the groups has been going for more than 30 years.
A patient who was taken to an appointment in the Oncology Department at Christchurch Hospital on Friday, Dorothy Gillespie, is partially blind and said her family was in Australia. She said she was grateful for the help and support of her volunteer, Robyn Deighton.
Mrs Deighton said she found herself with time on her hands nine years ago, noticed an advert seeking volunteer drivers for the society, applied, sat a driving assessment and hasn't looked back since.
"We could all be in this position at any time and they're truly great people, the people we meet. It's just a great pleasure and honour to be able to help them out in this small way."
A former patient herself and now a hospital volunteer, Chris Jennings, said it fulfilled a very real need.
"While you're in the chemotherapy ward or down here in the radiotherapy a lot of the volunteers come in and make coffee and tea and sit with you and just befriend you and a lot of people are traumatised by the experience and it's just an amazing support service."
The Volunteer Driving Co-ordinator Wendy Barker said driving around the city can be difficult, but it had not stopped the volunteers.
"They have driven through liquefaction, they have driven through earthquakes, we had two years of snow experiences and we were able to utilise our drivers who have four-wheel-drive vehicles for that.
The chief executive of the society's Canterbury West Coast division, Elizabeth Chesterman, said the groups' volunteers did 4000 individual transfers to hospital last year. A small contribution to costs is available if drivers apply for it, but she said many don't.
"Our drivers and service ensures that people get to treatment on time safely, stress-free. They arrive on time so there's not the hold-up in the hospital system. Just finding a carpark can be stressful especially here in Christchurch."
Christchurch Hospital radiation therapist Greta Lewis said the oncology department would not operate as efficiently without the help.
"Not only are they bringing patients in for treatment every day for up to 30-something treatments, they're there for support, so they're not just driving the car they're speaking with the patient and letting us know if there's something that we need to be aware of that we can help them and make their journey for want of a better word, through oncology easier."
The Inaugural Health Volunteers of the Year Award was being presented by Health Minister Tony Ryall at Wellington Hospital. The minister was also presenting the Community or NGO Service Team Award.
"These awards celebrate the volunteers whose commitment, dedication and hard work improve the quality of lives of New Zealanders," he said.
Others to receive awards on Monday include Wellington Free Ambulance volunteers who have been helping keep Wellington streets safe on a Friday and Saturday nights since 2011. The "Street Hospital" is staffed by teams of up to eight volunteers who set up mobile units to deal with drunk people and provide medical treatment between the hours of 10pm and 4am during the summer.
Joan McCardle of St Johns in North Taranaki receives an award for helping set up, train and run the Friends of the Emergency Department in Taranaki in 2011, and Wellington's Hutt International Boys School is runner up for a Youth Volunteer Team Award for supporting the Cancer Society.
Following the Wellington award ceremony, another wwas taking place in Auckland on Friday and Christchurch later in the month.