Yes, activism is great, but there’s a hands-on way to make a difference today

Many young people overlook volunteering as a way of contributing to their community, writes Joe Visser. Photo: Volunteering Australia.

As Australia marks National Volunteer Week, 18-year-old Joe Visser opines that despite volunteering being seen by many as an activity for old people, it’s also a great way for young Australians to make a difference to their community.

For many, the word ‘volunteer’ brings to mind images of grey hair and worn features, shaped by years spent slaving over the Lions Club barbeque. In fact, according to Volunteering Australia, 53.5 per cent of all volunteers in Australia are 55 or older.

The fact is that young people often overlook volunteering as a way to make a difference, favouring instead social media activism and advocacy. And, while I agree that technology is important for keeping important dialogues alive, it can overshadow more hands-on approaches to changemaking. 

As someone who has spent many of my 18 years in volunteer organisations, I’m hoping to convince more young people to open their eyes to the benefits of being an active member of their own community.

Volunteering can take on a number of forms, and is not limited to working bees or sausage sizzles (though if this is your thing, there are plenty on offer!). The most public faces of volunteering in recent years have been the Rural Fire Service and the State Emergency Service – but it can be hard to picture yourself in those roles, particularly when you live in the city.

Fortunately, there are other ways.

My first exposure to volunteering was through Surf Lifesaving Australia. I came up through the Nippers system and graduated onto patrolling the beach on spare weekends. Often, this was hard work physically and, sometimes, mentally. But the feeling of directly helping someone in trouble was worth every drop of sweat.

Of course, it helped that it wasn’t all hard work. The conversations with other patrolling members or beachgoers could be incredibly insightful – once we got past how ‘pumping’ the surf was on that particular day. 

Lifesaving, like many volunteer organisations, brings together people from every walk of life, and bonds them over a common cause. 

One of Joe Visser’s early experiences with volunteering was with Surf Lifesaving Australia’s Nippers program for young lifesavers. Photo: Surf Lifesaving Australia/Facebook.

Around the same time I started lifesaving, I joined the #LoveOzYA committee, a group dedicated to promoting Australian Young Adult literature to Australian teens. This was a far subtler way of making a difference, as there were no immediately visible results. There was no handshaking or back-patting on a job well done – it was more committee meetings and blog posts. 

It’s only now that I really see the importance of the work undertaken by groups like the #LoveOzYA committee. By creating a diverse panel of contributors, the committee made it a mission to ensure that all voices are accounted for in Australian YA literature, and that every Australian teen has the opportunity to read stories written by Australians for Australians. Their work is ongoing and is invaluable in giving young Australians a voice. 

Most recently, I involved myself with the community radio station in my regional town. A friend and I presented a show on the station for some of 2020 and all of 2021. 

This was a combination of what I see as ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ volunteering. We had clear objectives, and we would often receive feedback about how we were playing a role in someone else’s life, but we were somewhat separated from our audience simply because we couldn’t see them. 

Nonetheless, we knew we were doing something good. 

We played music by young local artists in our mix, and aimed to speak to a wide range of local, national and international guests. I think that some people see radio as a dying art, but to me that is simply not true. Radio, particularly community radio, remains as important as ever, for its immediacy and its intimacy.

During the Black Summer bushfires, many people in regional areas turned to community radio for local, reliable news on the conditions. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, community radio remained a valuable voice for the community’s most vulnerable, keeping them in touch with their own towns and regions.  

Joe Visser, pictured, is hoping to convince more young people to take up volunteering. Photo: Maybelle Thieu/supplied.

Volunteer organisations come in all shapes and sizes, and there is something for everyone, regardless of their passions. It’s one of the most direct ways to make a difference in someone else’s life and benefits everyone involved. I’ve learnt many different, real-world skills through volunteering – the kinds of things you simply don’t learn at school. 

Participation in a community organisation is great for physical and mental health, meeting new people, and helps create a better living environment for everyone. Best of all, it’s easy to get involved – simply follow your interests and give it a go. 

Don’t wait until your hair is grey, volunteer today! 

Joe Visser is a Sydney-based musician and writer. National Volunteer Week runs until Sunday, 22 May, 2022. Find out more about volunteer opportunities near you at govolunteer.com.au.

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