The key, is time

Article published in Esprit de Corps Issue 25 (December 2022)

Author: Hellene McTaggart Editor: Georgia Allen

One of my earliest memories is of playing under a big shady tree in Bibra Lake with my brother and some friends. The sounds of shovels swinging, fresh paint rolling onto walls and the easy chatter of adults. These were the happy sounds of my parents working with others to fundraise and build the first permanent home of Blue Gum Montessori School in the mid-80s.

The town of Mingenew in WA’s Midwest was like a foreign planet to me when I started visiting my now husband, Ben, back in 2003. I was a cello playing, arts management student and very much a Perth girl – Dunsborough was my idea of trip to the ‘country’. I was way out of my comfort zone in this land of open plains and sports loving, tractor driving, grain farming people. But the spirit of community and the simple act of putting your hand up to help-out was something to which I could relate.

Ben and I run a broadacre cropping and cattle operation with his brother Jamie and wife, Carine. Like many people in Mingenew we hold multiple community roles and volunteering is a big part of our life. In addition to my business manager role on farm, I also work part-time alongside IPPA alumni, Elizabeth Brennan (Class of 2003) in her consulting firm agdots and am the proud mum of two busy and happy boys.

Our Shire is made up of approximately 400 people who, like many small towns, are reliant on volunteerism to provide social, recreational and essential services – our day care, post office, community resource centre, local farm research and development organisation are all managed by volunteer boards. Community committees and volunteers coordinate sports, cultural, arts, aged care and tourism programs, services and events. Local fundraising to support these initiatives and build and upgrade recreation infrastructure is ongoing and would be in the hundreds of thousands each year.

When I meet new people they often comment about how lucky I am to have such a wonderful community. The thing is, ‘community’ isn’t something that is left to ‘luck’. The culture of community is due to a very conscious and consistent effort of so many to contribute to something that is bigger than ourselves.

Community isn’t unique to a certain location or a certain age, it can happen anywhere and at any time. It’s about getting out of your comfort zone and volunteering, which, I believe is the biggest key to developing community.

The best thing about volunteering is there are very few barriers to entry. Just turning up, with an open mind and being willing to give something a go is enough. It’s the teamwork and unconscious culture of mentoring that makes volunteering so powerful.

Having career pursuits outside of my farm business has always been a priority, however over the last 10 years, at times it just wasn’t possible- limited child-care options, the long and unpredictable hours of a farming business and my regional location all making it a bit too challenging. However, voluntary and semi-voluntary board roles have provided huge professional value (skills, experience and networking) during this time and continue to be thoroughly rewarding. Currently I am a Shire of Mingenew Councillor and a member of the Ministerially Appointed Grain, Seeds and Hay Industry Funding Scheme Management Committee. I love that I can contribute strategically to my industry and community in amongst my other commitments.

I greatly enjoy the diversity of people I get to meet and work alongside as a volunteer- it is a great leveller, as no matter your background or station in life, everyone’s time is worth the same. I was an ambulance officer for three years and this role gave me an insight into the lives of the some of the most vulnerable. When you’re operating at a high level of anxiety and stress the 100km to hospital can feel like 1,000km. It was a humbling experience to listen to a patient’s life story and I am a more compassionate and empathetic person because of it.

Volunteering is not all good vibes and great times. It can be hard work as it carves out time from your busy life and there are instances where there is certainly an over reliance on volunteers, with ‘burn out’ the casualty. For those who would like to volunteer here are my top 6 tips:

1/ Take on opportunities and keep notice of volunteer roles that are right on your doorstep.

2/ Regularly check out

3/ Check out your local Council! Specialist community development staff will happily direct you to local opportunities and organisations.

4/ Follow your passion- many arts, cultural, historical, environmental stewardship and sporting organisations are not for profit and rely heavily on volunteers.

5/ Local school P & C– there are always jobs to do that are simple and easy.

6/ Promote the value of volunteerism in your workplace. Consider adding volunteer leave as an option in your employment package, integrate questions around volunteerism and community contribution into your recruitment process.

I’d like to finish by saying, that I’m not a quote-type of person, but I have one stuck to my computer that keeps me grounded and motivated. To me, this quote by legendary regional volunteer, Cathy McGowan AO says it all: “community engagement is to be part of a team, to turn up, sign up and speak up, to put your hand out to others and give them a leg up”

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