05 March 2006
Mariell Taylor wanted to do something meaningful with the Girl Guide skills she'd gained as a child, and it was suggested she try fire fighting. As it turned out, there were some flames she just couldn't extinguish.
At a fundraiser for the service two years later she met fellow volunteer "firey" and now husband, Jason. The 32-year-old from Galston, NSW, admits meeting her life partner was the last thing on her mind when she offered to help out at her local Rural Fire Station. "There are people with the same sense of purpose and the same sense of community," says Taylor, who is now a paid employee for RFS.
"During a campaign fire or an incident you develop a mutual trust and respect for your fellow members as you work together and take control of the emergency.
"The fact that there are a lot of very eligible guys around is pretty good too."
Cause and effect
Celebrities such as Bono, Angelina Jolie, Kylie Minogue and Oprah are credited with inspiring more young people to give up their time for a charity or cause.
But Cupid could be another reason. A poll by British volunteer and training organisation, CSV, found that eight per cent of men and nine per cent of women said volunteering had improved their love lives. The figure was 17 per cent for those aged 17 to 24. Participants also reported a drop in their chocolate, alcohol and cigarette consumption. The survey sparked a new fundraiser in the UK called "Love-unteering" giving singletons a chance to try two different types of work for a cause or charity and hopefully finding love.
"Volunteering is what speed-dating promises but never fulfills - a way of seeing a lot of truth about someone you've just met in as short a time as possible," says Sharron Wilkingson, activity organiser.
According to Volunteering Australia, there are no plans to start a similar plan here yet. However their research shows 49 per cent of Australians who help out for a cause want to increase their social contact.
Others do so to get personal satisfaction, gain skills and help the local community. Volunteering Australia runs a website listing more than 9000 vacant volunteer positions ranging from teaching migrants English, to helping out at charity call centres and even saving sea turtles in Costa Rica.
Around 4.4 million Australians currently contribute 701 million hours per year through volunteering. It's estimated to be worth more than $10 billion to the economy.
Alan Bates, manager of volunteer services for the Wesley Mission, says it's quite common for people to form relationships while helping the charity.
He doesn't mind as long as it helps to boost much-needed numbers.
"It's a bit like meeting someone on holidays," says Bates. "Volunteering brings out the best in people because they are relaxed and happy. Would you prefer to meet a partner on the internet or sharing an activity that also helps others?"
Dr Kerry Hempenstall, a senior lecturer from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), says working on a common goal through a charity or a cause unknowingly creates the first steps towards intimacy. It removes the risk felt when meeting a stranger in a pub or club.
Even if you don't find love, volunteering is likely to make you feel good about yourself. According to the CSV survey almost half of respondents said volunteering had helped their health and fitness. A quarter of people who gave up their time at least five times a year also reported weight loss. "Doing things for others is a more effective way of achieving good mental health and stability rather than just focusing on one's self," says Dr Hempenstall.
LyndaMary Gorman-Burrows from Kurri Kurri, NSW, agrees, saying she was stuck in her own little world until she began volunteering. The then 40-year-old divorcee was suffering depression when a friend dragged her to the Salvation Army's Red Shield Appeal. She tagged along hoping it might renew her shattered self-confidence, never imagining it would introduce her to her future husband, Neil.
Neil called her the next day with the excuse of discussing the amount of proceeds raised. They married two years later. Gorman-Burrows admits she had given up on ever having another relationship. "I was volunteering because I was so lonely," she says. "I suppose I did it to get myself out there which was hard, but once I was there it was great."
The couple continue to volunteer for the Red Shield Appeal every year as a way of saying thank you. Gorman-Burrows says seeing the world from another perspective enabled her to overcome her depression with the help of her husband. "Volunteering is a way of giving, but you receive so much more back," she says.
At Australian Catholic University, students enrolled in teaching courses must complete a two-week stint as volunteers as part of their degree.
Dr Peter Howard sees an enormous change in his students' confidence after participating. Many continue to offer their services at hospitals and aged care facilities after leaving university. "I don't know if they eat less chocolate but they come back happy," says Dr Howard.
Rochelle Elphick, 33, and her husband Chris, 34, from St Ives in Sydney, fell in love more than a decade ago while working as youth leaders at Vision Valley in Sydney's north-west. The couple, who now have two children, are still involved in volunteering, and say the rewards can be amazing. They're saving towards a dream of buying their own rural retreat where they can run camps for disadvantaged youths. It's a goal they shared when they first met, before entering their respective professions of youth worker and builder.
"I wouldn't suggest someone goes into volunteering with the hope of meeting a partner, but if you love what you are doing chances are you'll meet other people with similar interests," says Elphick.
To attract young people to volunteering a growing number of organizations are offering short-term project roles. These can often be completed one weekend every couple of months.
Kylee Bates, CEO of Volunteering Australia, says you should ensure that any activities will be covered by insurance. Also check to see whether you will be reimbursed for any expenses.
"It's not just what the organization can offer you but what you can offer them," says Bates. "Make sure you tell them about your skills, energy and enthusiasm."