A number of students ask us what it is like to work in the community services sector, there is no easy answer as it is such a diverse sector that encompasses many skills and duties. Over the past 25 years, I have been blessed with the opportunity to volunteer for several different community organisations. One of the best things about working in community services roles is that each day is different from the next, and your role is constantly evolving. It is exciting to meet new people and network with other health professionals. Even today I still get a buzz from volunteering in the community and working alongside others. The experience I have gained through volunteering has enhanced my communication skills, increased my compassion for others, and I have been able to learn a range of new skills that have advanced my career.
Every organisation is different and the foundational skills you develop from early experiences in the field will carry across to other roles and assist in your professional development. Below is a snapshot of some of my past volunteer positions and experience.
PLWHA – One of my first and most memorable volunteer positions was at the Positive Living Centre in Darlinghurst. From the outside, it appears a relatively unassuming building, however once you step inside you are immediately enveloped in the warmth of the clients and staff. The centre’s role was to provide transport, meals, social support, complementary therapies and act as a drop-in centre for people living with HIV and AIDS. Many days were spent on the balcony talking, problem solving, being creative and advocating. Every day was different but incredibly enjoyable and rewarding.
Sydney Children’s Hospital (Randwick) – I found this to be one of the more emotionally challenging places I have worked. I volunteered to work with the Play Services Program, where the emphasis was on providing engaging activities for the children to distract them while procedures were being performed. Playing games all day may sound like lots of fun, but there was a serious side to it, as distracting a child while they had a procedure done, and trying to remain happy, calm, composed and continue to entertain them as parents were being given potentially devastating news about their child was very difficult. During this placement, I also learnt about infection control, confidentiality and the importance of being consistent and reliable.
Community Worker – Another memorable and enjoyable volunteer position was when I worked with families who had children with Autism. My role was to enhance their social, emotional and life skills by taking them out into the wider community. My time spent with the clients was very structured and always had a specific purpose. For example, with one client we would walk to the park and buy an ice-cream from the café. This may seem a reasonably straightforward enterprise, but for this boy the experience presented several challenges, such as walking past other children, asking the person behind the counter for an ice-cream, handing over money, working out how much change he should get back, and then eating the ice-cream in a public place.
Community Companion – This position involved providing companionship for people who needed someone to be with them at all times. Each day was different, as some days I might be driving to the doctor or going on a holiday with the person. Another time it might be helping the client to shop for groceries. One elderly man wanted to move to South Australia from NSW so my role involved helping him pack up his belongings, getting on a plane to travel to the new location, and assisting him to settle into his new residence.
YMCA Y Options – Y Options is a day activity program for school leavers and young adults with a disability and minimal to low support needs. The programs serve to promote recreational, educational and life skill development through activities that teach individuals how to lead an active, healthy and inclusive life. I recall this position with fondness as it was probably the most fun I have ever had in a job. We would go to concerts, movies, plays, dances, bowling or any other activity in the community that was interesting to the group. It also helped to reduce the stigma of disability in the community, as people with a disability were being seen doing everyday things.
Palliative Care – Currently I am fortunate to be volunteering with clients nearing the end of their life due to either age or illness. Providing companionship and helping them to live and enjoy their last few days/weeks/months is immensely rewarding but at the same time very emotional. In palliative care debriefing is essential for your own mental health.
Overall, my advice when looking for work, placement or a volunteer role is to be flexible, and go out into the community with an open mind. You may find that you walk out a changed person.
Author: Wendy Bonnarens – Head of Faculty, Community Services
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