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So you think you’re too busy to volunteer?

Volunteering enriches your life, writes Leanne Comer, and finding the time to do it is easier than you think.

Words Leanne Comer

Old car tyres. Tangled fishing line. Plastic bags and empty drink bottles. Discarded food wrappers. This is just some of the rubbish that ends up strewn on beaches and choking mangroves in our coastal waters.

On a rainy morning in Auckland, a small group of intrepid volunteers wades through waist-deep muddy water in the Panmure Basin. While most of us are still in bed or enjoying breakfast at a café, they are collecting and removing the rubbish that we leave behind. It’s cold, wet work and might seem like a strange way to spend a precious Sunday. So why do they do it? And would you?

If you’re thinking that you’d be willing to lend a hand but just don’t have the time, you are not alone. According to a recent report by Volunteer New Zealand, a perceived lack of time is the main barrier to volunteering for most people. But are we really too busy?

Donna Cobban, 50, doesn’t think so. She believes that finding the time to volunteer comes down to prioritising what is important. Like many of us, Donna leads a busy life. A secondary school teacher and sole parent to an 11-year-old son, Donna is passionate about protecting the environment. She is also a keen volunteer who has supported a number of projects over the years.

When asked how she finds time for volunteer work, Donna says, “If you want to do something, you aren’t too busy. You make time for anything that you think is worthwhile.”

One way in which Donna makes time for volunteering is by choosing projects that she and her son can do together. In this way, the volunteer work becomes an integral part of their family life, rather than something that has to be squeezed into an already busy schedule.

Earlier this year, the two of them volunteered for Sea Cleaners. This not-for-profit organisation, which operates in Auckland and Northland, was established in 2002. It currently has four vessels that take volunteers out to clean up beaches and mangroves in Auckland and Northland every weekday and on one Sunday of every month.

Donna says that while trawling through mangrove swamps and scouring beaches for rubbish might not appeal to everyone, she genuinely enjoys the work.

“I found both experiences, wading through the mangroves and on the white beaches of the island thoroughly enjoyable. I didn’t see it as a chore or feel like I’d given up my day,” she says with a smile.

This experience illustrates one of the findings of a recent study on the impact of volunteering on the health and well-being of volunteers. The study, conducted by Volunteer Ireland, found that people benefit most when they choose volunteer work that they enjoy.

Donna’s son also enjoyed his day volunteering with Sea Cleaners and she believes that he learned a lot from it. In particular, the experience has enhanced his awareness of the environmental damage caused by plastic and other rubbish and taught him that we need to look after our seas and beaches.

“For me, as a parent,” says Donna, “giving him that experience of being aware – I think that was invaluable.”

Like Donna, Malcolm Campbell, 56, is a busy man. In his role as the Head of the School of Humanities at the University of Auckland, Malcolm is responsible for managing more than 60 staff members, more than 1500 students and the school budget. He often takes work home in the evenings and on weekends. However, he recently decided to leave the laptop behind and catch the ferry to Motuihe Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf.

On the island, Malcolm donned a toolbelt, grabbed a machete and picked up a shovel. For the next few hours, he and a small team of other workers slashed, snipped and dug, clearing a section of overgrown track. Nearby, another group of workers planted two hundred cabbage trees, while in the nursery a third group potted six hundred seedlings.

This was Malcolm’s second time volunteering for the Motuihe Island Restoration Project, along with other members of the Arts Sustainability Group from the University of Auckland. The organiser of the trip to Motuihe Island, Adrianna Yiu, believes that people benefit in several ways from participating in this project.

“I think they learn more about the native plants grown on conservation islands such as Motuihe and how much work is involved to plant trees,” she says. “It is also a good way to catch up with colleagues outside of the work environment.”

For Malcolm, volunteering for the project contributes to his work-life balance. He believes that this a good reason for others to consider donating their time and skills to a good cause.

“For people who work hard I think having some time when you’re able to get away from work and do something that’s quite different is important,” he explains. “For me, this has been a really good example of getting away, of doing that.”

The volunteer work has also been an opportunity to spend time with family, doing something constructive together. His son Finn, 22, a student at the university, has accompanied Malcolm on the Motuihe Island trip for the past two years. He enjoys the opportunity to work as a part of a team and to contribute to a worthwhile project.

“You do get a small sense of community from volunteering,” says Finn, “and also you get to feel like you’re giving to the environment rather than just taking from it, which I think is important.”

Finn’s experience illustrates another of the findings of the study conducted by Volunteer Ireland: for many people, “feeling connected to community” is one of the benefits of undertaking volunteer work.

That sense of community is very much in evidence in suburban Sandringham, where another group of volunteers is taking a creative approach to protecting the environment. Inside the Gribblehurst Community Hub, workers are cutting, ironing and pinning fabric. Others sit at sewing machines, busily transforming fabric into bags. The atmosphere is lively, and laughter and chatter fill the air.

These volunteers are working for Boomerang Bags, a community-based organisation that makes and distributes cloth bags, using fabrics that would otherwise end up in landfills. The Dominion Road branch of Boomerang Bags was established in October 2017, by 56-year-old nurse Catherine Patten and a small group of friends. Since then, they have attracted other volunteers to join, mostly through social media and word-of-mouth.

The group runs three sewing bees per month, attracting an average of 25 volunteers to each session. The volunteers make the bags, which are then distributed to local retailers. The bags are lent to shoppers, free of charge, as a substitute for plastic bags. The group reached its target of making and distributing 2019 bags by the end of June and now aims to have 3000 bags in circulation by the end of the year.

Volunteers are encouraged to attend any or all of the sewing bees, depending upon how much time they feel they can contribute. Catherine estimates that most of them dedicate three to six hours per month to the project. Some bring their children along to the sessions, making it part of their family routine.

Catherine estimates that she spends approximately ten to twelve hours per month working in her role as group coordinator. She feels that it is time well spent.

“I get a lot out of it,” she points out. “I enjoy sewing and I get together with friends and meet lots of new people.”

While acknowledging that it is a challenge for many people to fit volunteer work into their busy lives, Catherine believes that people will make time for volunteering if they find something that they enjoy doing and if they value the projects that they support.

“It really is about priorities and what you want to do, and what’s important to you,” says Catherine.

So, as you lie in bed on Sunday morning, or enjoy your second flat white at the local café, spend some time thinking about what’s important to you. If you’re not keen to clean up beaches, plant trees or make bags, don’t let that stop you. There are numerous organisations that rely on volunteer workers and a vast array of different roles on offer. Find something that you’ll enjoy and give it a try.

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