Through volunteering during the pandemic, multicultural communities tackle loneliness and isolation

Throughout the pandemic, Sunil Abbott and a group of migrant seniors in Melbourne’s west have been on a mission to continue providing meals and groceries to at-risk individuals within their community.

Mr Abbott is the founder of Club 60 Tarneit, a group he established in 2016 after seeing many Indian-Australian residents over 60, and visiting parents from South Asian countries, were experiencing social isolation, and cultural and language barriers. 

The group arranges meetings and events to keep its 600 members active and engaged, and Mr Abbott said giving back to the community has also helped to mitigate loneliness, especially during the pandemic.

“In our culture, it was always taught to help others, so we started volunteer work [including] clearing open spaces and tree planting. Then, the major activity was to provide cooked meals to the vulnerable members of the society,” Mr Abbott said.

“It gives us a sort of belongingness, because many of us have come as migrant seniors and we get a lot of things from this country.”

Club 60 Tarneit  has adapted its volunteer work during lockdown by cooking meals at home instead of at the community centre kitchen. 

Usually a group of members would come together to cook up to three times a week.

Now once a week a member is nominated to cook from their home kitchen, and can provide around 25 meals, which are picked up and delivered by other agencies.

According to Volunteering Australia, formal volunteering through established organisations has decreased during the pandemic.

In April this year, 24.2 per cent of Australians had done voluntary work in the previous 12 months, down from 36 per cent in late 2019.

But as many formal volunteer programmes have been forced to scale back or even close, community groups have taken up the mantle to help their communities in a COVID-safe way.

“There isn’t an empathy deficit by any means. In fact, there’s an empathy surplus,” Mark Pearce, CEO of Volunteering Australia, said.

“Institutional volunteering is important and it does a wonderful thing, but the beating heart of communities is within the community itself.”  

Community engagement ‘substantially’ improving mental health during COVID

Mr Pearce said while volunteering had profound benefits for communities, the “profound benefits for the individuals who are doing the volunteering themselves” were often overlooked.

Volunteering Australia and the Australian National University (ANU) Centre for Social Research and Methods released a study earlier this year that explored the impacts volunteering had on mental health, life satisfaction and loneliness during COVID-19. 

It found that those who continued to volunteer during the pandemic presented with better mental health outcomes than those who stopped.

“The ability for people to continue to volunteer — to engage in community — over the COVID period has substantially improved their mental health,” Mr Pearce said. 

“There’s less of a feeling of loneliness, less of a feeling of disconnection.”

Research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine last year took a closer look, analysing the experience of nearly 13,000 participants. 

The results showed “volunteerism among older adults doesn’t just strengthen communities, but enriches our own lives by strengthening our bonds to others, helping us feel a sense of purpose and wellbeing”.

“Humans are social creatures by nature. Perhaps this is why our minds and bodies are rewarded when we give to others,” Eric Kim, lead investigator from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, said in a statement.

Helping non-English speakers get vaccinated 

International student Shavhin Ahn stumbled upon an opportunity to give back to the community during lockdown. Now it’s part of his everyday life. 

When the 19-year-old and his sister Yehvhin went to the cohealth vaccination hub at Melbourne Town Hall to get a jab earlier this month, they noticed some people in line were struggling to communicate with the nurses. 

The vaccination centre, which targets international students, refugees and people with English literacy limitations, has a telephone interpreting service.

However, cohealth said it was often busy and slow, and having multiple interpreters onsite every day was not logistically or financially viable. 

“I thought maybe I could help. I speak Mandarin, Korean and English, so after my vaccination I stood at the entrance and if people seemed to be struggling with communication, I’d ask, ‘Hey, do you speak Chinese or Korean? Can I help you?'” Mr Ahn said.

Since that day, Mr Ahn and his sister have been returning to provide translation support, mainly for elderly people who may not speak any English at all.

The siblings plan to keep showing up for as long as they are needed. 

“It’s just so lovely for them to give up their spare time to help the community,” the centre’s clinical lead Brieneka Maloney said.

“They could see that there was a gap and they had that initiative and courage to step in and say, ‘I can help, I can help my community.'”

A culture of helping out 

Trish Prentice, a senior researcher at the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute, released a study this month on culturally and linguistically diverse communities volunteering in emergency services.

She said many of the volunteers she interviewed were international students when they started out. 

“They were looking for ways to integrate, to have this genuine cultural experience, to meet new people and to make friends, while also gaining skills,” she said.

“When people perceive international students and their reasons for coming to Australia, I don’t think they would see that desire to serve and reach out and experience life in Australia in a deeper way.”

She said it has always been difficult to attract volunteers in emergency services and numbers had further declined during the pandemic. But that hasn’t meant people are less likely to want to help. 

Other research she has been conducting shows a rise in informal volunteering. 

“There’s some indication that the pandemic has brought out the best people in some senses, providing material support or just checking on neighbours.”

For Lidya Teferi, a 24-year-old student from Ethiopia, COVID-19 hasn’t stopped her from continuing her volunteer work as an Ambulance Community Officer — except when there has been border closures between Melbourne and regional Victoria.

Ms Teferi is studying nursing and paramedicine and works as a pathology collector, but she still finds time to make the 112-kilometre trip from Melbourne to Anglesea to support local paramedics for 20 hours a month. 

Ms Teferi is used to lending a hand in her community.

Back in Kenya, where she lived as a refugee for 13 years, she volunteered with her church and helped run charities at school. 

“I’ve always put my hand up for things like this,” she said. 

Her main job is driving the ambulance, which has taught her not only how to control a large vehicle and navigate the streets, but also how to communicate with people from a range of backgrounds — a skill she thinks is important in the medical field.

But the main reason she volunteers is the feeling she gets when out on shift.

“It just feels like the right thing to do.”

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