a volunteer is a plant that grows on its own, rather than being deliberately planted

by Helen Wilde

Any plant that the gardener didn’t put in, and is not a weed, is known by the term ‘volunteer’. In most cases gardeners consider these plants more than welcome, though they may need to be relocated or even shared. (Who can resist free plants?) – See more

My blog this week is prompted by my lush Spring garden. It is filled with fruit trees, ripe loquats, and stone fruits that have blossomed and set, an apple tree coming into blossom, an olive tree still laden with last year’s fruit. Around the edges nasturtiums cascade through my lavender and Marguerite daisy bushes, and climb fences, grape vines, even the wisteria. Their sunny cheerful faces nod at me from the tops of fences, the stems of broad beans, and a water tap. I also have herbs, pumpkin seedlings, tomatoes and rhubarb. In my frangipanni pots, are countless Eucalyptus seedlings that I know I will have to pull out

Most of these plants have just grown by themselves. Yes, some were there when we bought this place 30 years ago. One or two I have bought and planted (notably an early peach that is just scrummy, and is now a parent). But 3 loquat trees, two nectarines, two peach trees, two apricot trees, the olive and the apple, are from seeds that were tossed aside after a piece of fruit was eaten, or from seedlings that popped up in my compost heap, or from fallen fruit. The eucalyptus seedlings have blown in the wind from a nearby majestic tree. They are Volunteers. They are growing where they choose to, in the conditions that suit them.

I have also been re reading what is possibly my favourite book ATM, The Diaries of Nella Last: Writing in War and Peace .  Now this is my favourite book for a number of reasons.  Nella lived in my home town, and the Mass Observation diary that she voluntarily wrote between 1939 and 1965, over 2 million words, gives in minute detail an account of the life that both of my grandmothers and my extended family would have lived during that period. I find it totally absorbing.

Coincidentally, Nella’s younger son, a noted Modernist sculptor, emigrated from my home town to live in Adelaide, where I now live.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clifford_Last Nella volunteered for a sociological project that was set up by the British Government to record the daily lives of ordinary people. Because of the time frame in which Nella wrote, we read accounts of Volunteering of ordinary women in War time. Nella worked tirelessly in a range of positions as a Volunteer to support soldiers, sailors, refugees, sick and injured people. She worked in the Canteen for the airmen, soldiers and sailors, made dollies for children in hospital, sewed and knitted, made blankets from scraps, ran what we would call an ‘Op Shop’ for the Red Cross, worked in the WVS.

At the same time, Nella was running a house, looking after a husband & worrying about her two adult sons, and assisting neighbours and elderly relatives. Her thoughts about Volunteering are summed up by her in these words “Whoso saveth his life must lose it-I wonder if the hidden meaning is that we must not grow to think of ourselves too much and by thinking of others we help ourselves more.” page 16 Now Nella didn’t work for money outside her home. Her income came from a small inheritance from her father, and from her husband’s joinery business. Interestingly, her mother died when Nella was young, and the biggest female influence on her life and values was her Quaker grandmother and her kind Aunt.

Last Thursday I was fortunate to be invited by the Commonwealth Bank to an all day Conference at the Adelaide Hilton. (Yes, very nice venue!). One of the speakers was talking about population change in Australia over the next few decades. He made two interesting points. One, that the economic value of Volunteers in Australian society has not been measured, but that it is immense. And his later point was that, in the relatively near future, the ‘Baby Boomers’ will be expected to work to a greater age than the current 65 years, and will not be able to draw on their Superannuation payments or Pensions until they are older than 65 years. That made me wonder, where are the volunteers of the future to come from? So many volunteer child carers are over retirement age, all those grandparents. They are growing seedling Trees for Life, caring for sick and injured birds and animals, serving in Op Shops, helping refugees learn to read write and speak English, assisting fundraising in countless schools and charities. They even help out in Aged Care Homes.

Why do they do it?

I am a volunteer. On at least 2 days a week I have the joy of caring for young grandchildren. I help Trees For Life through selling raffle tickets. I volunteer at Film Festivals, Eco/Sustainable Housing open days, and Arts events. I voluntarily help Diabetes Counselling Online with many aspects of fund-raising. Over my lifetime I have helped out other charities, and schools.

Why did Nella Last do it? All those years of writing, writing, sending her diaries away, never knowing what would become of her words, doing all that volunteer practical war service, and continuing into peace time. Nella reveals a very personal side to herself in her diaries: she suffered from bouts of anxiety, physical ailments, and depression.

The answer is, because we choose to, because we don’t have to: because the rewards are not about money, they are about seeing a need or a niche that we can fill, that will enable us to grow, to feel a deep sense of satisfaction in doing something we have chosen to do, and to do it as well as we can. For most of these activities, there is the added bonus of communicating with others. Through volunteering, we find resilience and strength to live our lives. Nella’s words resonate down the years. The funds raised by volunteers provide help to so many. The local Op Shop is somewhere that lonely people can go, spend a little, feel good about giving, and find someone kind to speak with. The trees that are planted may last a century, the seeds are planted for the future.

So if you haven’t tried it yet, try Volunteering. You may not be able to cycle up a mountain or sail around the world and raise money for Diabetes research, you may not be able to commit a regular time to a charity or op shop: but there will be a niche for you. We all possess abilities, talents and skills that are needed by someone somewhere.

Helen Wilde
Helen was a long term Senior Counsellor with Diabetes Counselling Online & a Teacher. She is mother of a type 1 diabetic since 1979 and a type 2 diabetic herself for 15 years.