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Virus cuts swathe through volunteer ranks

Local

The number of organisations recruiting volunteers in South Australia has halved since coronavirus-prompted restrictions were imposed, with some charities now forced to shut as the unpaid workforce self-isolates at home.

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Peak volunteer body Volunteering SA&NT estimates there are “thousands and thousands” of volunteers across South Australia who are unable to continue working due to government-enforced restrictions.

Volunteers most likely to be impacted include those who work at aged care facilities, hospitals, and festivals and events that have since been cancelled.  

Social distancing and travel bans have particularly dented the state’s not-for-profit sector, which relies on five volunteers to every one paid worker to deliver services to the community.

Volunteering SA&NT chief executive Evelyn O’Loughlin said a recent call-out to the 1011 South Australian organisations that advertise volunteering positions through the peak body’s website showed only half were still recruiting.

But she said there was “no shortage of willing people” for volunteer roles, with 200 people registering to volunteer in the past week.

“If we put out a massive call-out and boosted our messaging I’m sure that would only escalate,” she told InDaily.  

“We had 3000 people register for the bushfires for example in January, so there’s a similar sentiment here with people wanting to help those struggling in the community.

“Part of the puzzle is, yes you can promote people to register to volunteer, but if you have no roles for anyone all you’re doing is just registering them and not giving them something fulfilling to do.”

Some smaller charities that provide face-to-face services to the community have been forced to close or suspend services, particularly those that are run by mostly elderly volunteers.

O’Loughlin said women aged between 35 and 55 were the largest volunteer grouping in the state, but older South Australians who are most at risk of contracting COVID-19 gave “the most time and probably volunteer for more than one organisation”.

“If you think about the not-for-profit workforce statistics they’re (older South Australians) just a huge resource, but many are unable to continue volunteering because they are staying at home,” she said.

“Volunteering is not only good for your soul but there are physical health benefits (and) mental health benefits, so if people aren’t doing that for an extended period of time these are matters that we’ll have to consider seriously.”

But O’Loughlin said it was important that the state “cautiously” encouraged volunteering to ensure people are not given a “false expectation” that there will be meaningful work for them to do.

It follows the Queensland Government’s call last week for people to register to become volunteers as part of a “Care Army” – an iteration of the state’s famous “Mud Army” that was borne out of the 2011 floods.

About 20,000 Queenslanders have now registered to become volunteers – an oversupply compared to the number of positions currently available.

“If you’ve got 20,000 that’s a massive lot of people’s expectations that they’re going to be out there doing something,” O’Loughlin said.

“We would rather know that there are roles out there for people and try and make the people interested for those roles.”

Volunteering SA&NT is currently assisting organisations to adapt their face-to-face services to online and over the phone, to ensure volunteers can work from home.

O’Halloran Hill food relief charity The People’s Pantry, which provided affordable groceries to up to 700 people on low incomes before the coronavirus crisis hit, was forced to shut its shop last month due to social distancing restrictions.

But it reopened this month after it adapted its service to provide pre-prepared food hampers to people in need.

Worker Reannon said most of the charity’s 25 volunteers were unable to continue working as they were either elderly or autoimmune compromised, but a team of five was helping deliver about 60 hampers to people each week.

“Initially we weren’t comfortable risking our volunteers to remain open, so we did unfortunately have to shut for a couple of weeks,” she said.

“We looked really closely at the health advice that the Government was putting out and we came up with a plan to be able to deliver food to people in a lot safer way.  

“We can’t provide as much as what we normally can, but we’re putting things in place to make sure that people are getting enough to at least get them through the week.”

 O’Loughlin said it was important that the work that volunteers do in the community was recognised during the coronavirus fallout.

“The focus around paid employees is always paramount, but volunteers – even though there’s five times as many of them – don’t always get the same level of attention for whatever reason,” she said.

“We must think of them as integral workforce members.

“Just because they’re unpaid doesn’t make them any less valuable, and in fact makes them bloody priceless.”

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