15 May 2023

Put your hand up! School helpers say volunteering's in a class of its own

| Ian Bushnell
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three women in aprons

Pitching in at the Harrison School movie night are P&C sisters Rebecca Connolly, Bronwyn Hill and president Olivia Wenholz. Photos: ACT Council of Parents & Citizens Associations.

The pandemic cut a swathe through volunteer communities as lockdowns and closures disrupted social connections and people drifted away, particularly in schools, where campuses lay empty as students worked from home online.

But the volunteers, so vital to any school community, are coming back, keen to contribute and be part of something bigger than themselves.

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The ACT Council of Parents & Citizens Associations says rebuilding that sense of community damaged by the lockdowns was a priority for school volunteers.

President Alison Elliott said this was an intangible but so valuable – especially after the isolating effects of the pandemic.

“We are so grateful to the hundreds of P&C volunteers across Canberra who make our ACT public schools even better places,” she said.

“P&C volunteers make a real difference. And not just by raising funds for a new shade sail or box of readers. They help foster the community that is the heart of every school, connecting people together and to the school.

“We see P&Cs creating events and activities that bring their communities together.

“It might be a morning tea for new families, or organised after-school playdates, or a family disco. They add such depth and colour to the school experience.”

school colour run

Kaleen Primary parent volunteers literally adding colour to school life at the fundraising colour run.

Longtime volunteer and Harrison School P&C president Olivia Wenholz said the urge to volunteer was an inbuilt belief she was raised with.

“You contribute to your community and you help out and things are inevitably better,” she said.

“Things that wouldn’t have got done otherwise can get done when people volunteer.”

Olivia said she had learnt new skills managing the school canteen and uniform shop, essential small businesses.

“I’ve learned quite a lot about supply chains and manufacturing of uniforms and rostering and team management,” she said.

But the connection with others and meeting other people in the community was also rewarding.

“A lot of that happens when you work on a Mother’s Day stall together or you do a shift in the canteen together,” Olivia said.

“But mostly, for me it’s been the immense gratitude you get from people for the smallest effort.”

Olivia, who also holds down a job at the ANU four days a week, puts in longer hours than most but the P&C likes to reach far and wide and offer small opportunities that are not onerous or time-consuming to share the load.

“They get to feel that they’ve actually made a difference,” she said. “That wouldn’t have happened otherwise if they hadn’t done it.”

woman at stall

Gilmore Primary School P&C secretary Joanna Montague on the Mother’s Day stall with items she made and grew herself.

Gilmore Primary School secretary Joanna Montague came later to volunteering, in the waning days of the pandemic when it was hard to meet other parents.

A public servant with project management experience, she brought her organisational skills to a role that was looking like staying vacant, putting at risk the P& C’s ability to function.

Joanna gained a massive appreciation of what goes on “in the back end” of the school but, like Olivia, it was the sense of connection, community and belonging that she found so satisfying.

“I organised all the donations for our Christmas raffle last year and it was really amazing to see the response out in the community to support the school,” she said.

Last year, the school had a car-boot sale that brought the local community into the school, an experience she found particularly energising.

“I was out in the neighbourhood handing out flyers and it was really nice to interact with people,” Joanna said. “But also, having the community come into the school and have the school humming and alive and vibrant felt really good.”

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Olivia and Joanna urged people thinking about volunteering to have a go, saying the rewards were much greater than the time and effort required.

Olivia said people should not be scared of not knowing what to do because there would always be someone to train you.

“People will show you how to do the task and you’ll get a lot of smiles and thanks in return, and you’ll see improvement in your community that would not be able to happen without you,” she said.

Joanna said everyone had something to offer.

“Every little bit counts and whatever scrap of time you can give to a voluntary position is worth its weight in gold,” she said.

“You get back way more than you put in. If you can pitch in a little bit, it makes a huge difference.”

This is National Volunteer Week (15-21 May).

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