When I was young, I constantly begged my parents to book a trip to see my grandmother.

But she lived in a different state and traveling with a physical disability like mine is not easy. As I grew older and became more difficult to transport, it was only on rare occasions that I was able to visit my mother’s parents.

When Nan passed away, I was devastated. I blamed the distance.

Thinking about what might have been floating around in my head, I began to wonder how difficult this must be for families in similar circumstances, especially those living in residential care with close relatives in another state.

These events inspired me to sign up as a volunteer companion to local nursing home residents living with dementia.

A few weeks into my role and walking through the ward, staff reported that they had already begun to observe positive changes in resident behavior. They were more alert and responsive.

The story of one woman in particular stuck with me. Her dementia was at a stage where she could no longer remember names or actively participate in conversation and she could no longer feed herself.

During one of my visits, I sat next to the bed of this woman, whom I will call Sarah. As I took her hand, Sarah looked up from the children’s show she was watching and smiled at me. “I don’t know who you are, she said, but you make me happy.

What drives Australia’s five million volunteers?

Across Australia there are more than 5 million people like me who volunteers through an organization.

Most start volunteering because they know someone who is already involved or because they are simply asked to volunteer their time or expertise, according to Volunteering Australia.

But volunteers often have multiple motivations – many cite a desire to be of service to others or seek the personal satisfaction that comes from doing something meaningful.

Michele Bake is “crochet crazy” and the proud owner of a 400-cow dairy farm which she runs with her husband near Coffs Harbor on the New South Wales north coast.

Michele, 55, says she has always been an active volunteer, taking on roles on local committees, charity shops and as chair of the P&C at her daughter’s school.

Then, in 2020, Michele took her volunteerism a step further and trained as a crisis support worker with Lifeline.

Michele says she had thought about volunteering with the organization for many years, but was not comfortable talking to someone on the phone in times of crisis.

But when she heard about a new service allowing people to text rather than call Lifeline supporters in a crisis, Michele was interested.

“I tend to speak before I think,” she says, explaining why the texting service appealed to her.

But it also offers benefits to callers, she believes: “Digital [messaging] service was a great way to reach young people who might be more comfortable [asking for help that way].”

Michele took her volunteering a step further and in 2020 she completed crisis support training with Lifeline.(Supplied: lifeline)

Michele looks forward to her shifts every week and likes to “give back”. “I love being with people when they are most vulnerable or in times of distress and being able to stay with them,” she says.

When not working on the farm or providing online support, Michele enjoys visiting the local school, where she recently started teaching children how to crochet.

“I just teach them the basics and let them move on to more technical stuff,” she says.

The dramatic impact of COVID on volunteering

The arrival of COVID-19 on Australian shores has had a profound impact on volunteering.

A study by the Center for Social Research and Methods at the Australian National University found that the proportion of Australian adults engaged in voluntary work fell from 36% to 24.2% in 2021.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the decline in volunteering was initially due to people not being able to participate in person. Many former volunteers have seen their groups shut down or scale back their operations. Others didn’t know how to volunteer despite COVID-19 restrictions.

Two men and a woman, wearing sweaters and t-shirts
Sonny Tuapola (far right) volunteers with Orange Sky, a charity that provides laundry, showers and talks to people who are homeless.(Provided)

Strikingly, only around half of those who stopped volunteering in 2020 resumed in the 12 months to April last year, despite the easing of lockdowns and distancing restrictions social.

But the pandemic has revealed another interesting insight into volunteerism.

While many associate volunteering with helping others, the act of volunteering is also strongly linked to life satisfaction for the person giving their time.

Those who were forced to stop volunteering during the pandemic reported experiencing greater declines in life satisfaction than those who had never volunteered.

And once restrictions eased, social contact was a key motivator for volunteers to return to their unpaid roles.

It’s something Sonny Tuapola — who juggles three volunteer roles — understands: “COVID-19 affected [my volunteer work]”, he says. “Shifts were canceled or we had to wear PPE.”

But Sonny is happy to be back: “Volunteering has so many benefits. Giving back is one of them, but it’s also good for the spirit.”

A group of volunteers wearing white t-shirts and face masks unpacking boxes
Over five million Australians volunteer through an organization.(Pexels: RODNAE Productions)

Offer a lifeline

Volunteering has become a big part of life for Sonny, who volunteers alongside his paid work as a Sydney Service Delivery Manager and a passion for fitness bootcamps.

Sonny, 55, volunteers at Sydney’s Wayside Chapel, a support center that provides essential care and services to anyone experiencing homelessness or social isolation.

“Wayside Chapel serves free breakfast for the homeless, anyone who comes in on the streets, so I work a two-hour shift every Monday morning,” he says.

Sonny also volunteers weekly with Orange Sky, a charity providing laundry, showers and conversation to anyone who is homeless.

“It’s usually a two-hour shift to install the washing machines, dryers and showers for the homeless, and provide the free service,” he says.

A man in a blue t-shirt and apron poses for a photo with an elderly woman who is holding a container of canned fruit
Sonny during one of his volunteer shifts at Wayside Chapel in Sydney.(Provided)

Following a friend’s suicide last year, Sonny began training as a Lifeline counselor. The vast majority — 88% — of people who contact Lifeline prefer the web or text, he says.

“No one wants to talk…because everyone is so savvy with phones. People are calling from everywhere – homes, parks, schools…I can provide that support [from home]. I have my screens and process flowcharts… I have templates and speaking notes and all that.”

Along with his crisis support work, Sonny participates in the Push Up Challenge, a mental health and fitness initiative that aims to help prevent suicide.

“This time it’s 3,139 push-ups [over a month] … so it’s about 180 less than in 2019-2020, which is a good thing”, he laughs.

Sonny credits his 27-year-old “supportive” partner Pete for keeping him grounded. “He feeds me. He makes sure I’m okay… and that I have time to sit down and relax to watch TV or take a walk with the dog.”

Inspire the next generation of volunteers

As social restrictions continue to ease and life returns to COVID “normal”, young people are encouraged to volunteer.

Michele says there are many things people can do to contribute to their community.

“Go out there and do it. There are so many great ways to volunteer, from driving for Meals on Wheels, to Pink Ladies in hospitals,” she says. “It’s a wonderful feeling. I can only recommend it.”

Young people bring talent, enthusiasm, energy, new perspectives and creativity, Michele believes. “They are open to new ideas and are able to move into roles where appropriate responsibility and support is given.”

Sonny says he sees a lot of young people helping out in the community. He believes the volunteer experience teaches valuable lessons that can have a positive impact on their lives.

“I think it keeps [younger people] grounded,” he says. “I think schools should encourage them [to volunteer]. They would learn a bit more about respect, getting to know the people passing by… It would be a really good exposure for them.”