Volunteers – essential for the essential services

Waiting for breakfast at a social distance at the Byron Community Centre homeless breakfast hub.

Eve Jeffery

We all know that volunteers keep this country going. From the Rural Fire Service (RFS), the Volunteers Rescue Association (VRA), scout leaders, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens, to caring for wildlife, supporting hospitals, supporting people living with a disability, and just plain old lending a hand. Volunteers continue to do what needs doing to keep services up and running.

With the current health crisis we are daily being reminded of the real value of our volunteers as they put their own health on the line to continue to care for our community – we owe them a lot, and in some cases, we owe them our lives.

Uniting Church Foodbox

The Uniting Church Foodbox in Mullumbimby is just one example of a great service that many on a low income could not do without. Organiser, Gil Lomath, says the Foodbox volunteers are still providing groceries, bread and veggies every Thursday.

‘We have limited volunteers, but so far [we] are managing,’ she said. ‘People are very appreciative. It’s a lot of extra work distancing, sanitising, wearing gloves and masks, but we feel it’s quite important as people are doing it tough.

‘We hope to continue for as long as we can [to] provide this service in a very safe way.’


WIRES are also operating normally and implementing plans to ensure they can continue to assist sick, injured and orphaned wildlife.

WIRES has approximately 3,000 volunteers across NSW, says WIRES Northern Rivers Secretary, Susanne Ulyatt.

‘The majority of our volunteers are operating. Wildlife is still in need of help, and members of the public rely on our service when finding an injured or orphaned animal, or are in need of advice.

‘While statistics have not yet been released, there are fewer cars on the road, which will hopefully equate to fewer animals being injured or orphaned.’

Rural Fire Service

RFS spokesperson, Gary Allan, says the NSW RFS is monitoring the situation with COVID-19, and will continue to do so in the lead up to the bush fire season.

‘The Service has put a number of measures in place for the health and safety of its members, and members of the community. This includes restrictions on non-essential activities, and minimal crew numbers on vehicles to achieve social distancing measures.’

Mr Allan says that the RFS doesn’t expect COVID-19 to have any impact on responding to emergencies, or on important hazard reduction activities, which are considered an essential activity.

‘Responding to, and preparing for emergencies is an essential service, and we’ll work to ensure these operations continue.’

Liberation Larder

The Liberation Larder in Byron have not stopped services at all during the COVID-19 pandemic.

President, Liz Jackson, said they have modified the way they serve their clients to ensure safe distancing and minimal numbers congregating around the service.

‘In doing this, we have also had to reduce our volunteer numbers, as there can only be a maximum of four in the kitchen at any time,’ she explained.

Ms Jackson says client numbers have increased noticeably owing to trapped overseas people on work visas, and locals being out of employment.

‘We predict the trend will continue in a shire that is so dependent on tourism, and hospitality being the largest employer in the area.’

Liberation Larder is part of the linking of three services that are now able to offer home delivery of food boxes and cooked meals, Shire wide. All services are operating from the Byron Community Centre.

Byron Shire Volunteer driver for Tweed, Byron and Ballina Community Transport Iain Harvey, sanitsitng the car after and early morning trip from Wilson’sCreek to Tweed Hospital supporting a community member to their essential medical treatment.

Community Transport still running

CEO of Tweed, Byron and Ballina Community Transport, Phil Barron, says the group is still running and has around 130 active volunteers across the three shires.

‘We continue to provide essential transport to medical appointments for our clients, including long distance to Lismore and Queensland medical destinations. We are also assisting those clients travelling across the border to obtain and print a border permit.’

Mr Barron says clients are being very thoughtful, and thankful for the service. ‘They tell us they really appreciate the good work our volunteers and staff are doing.’

Of course, there will always be emergency services needed, and for this reason The Brunswick Valley Rescue Squad (VRA) is still active and on-call, responding in the local community. The VRA has members living throughout Byron Shire who are ready to respond day and night and are able to continue the service without any issues during the pandemic.

Mullumbimby Neighbourhood Centre volunteers packing up boxes of food.

Mullumbimby Neighbourhood Centre

The Mullumbimby Neighbourhood Centre’s Julie Williams says volunteers have dropped from 20 to four at a time, as a distancing control – yet they are carrying on regardless.

‘We’ve done flood, fire, and now pandemic. Supporting community is what we do. Our specialist domestic violence services are still operating, as are many other services.’

Ms Williams says some community members are accessing the centre for the first time as they have lost their income.

‘It can be very difficult for people. We’re doing our best to help everyone feel as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. We are averaging 15 people per day, and with no accessible Aboriginal services in Byron Shire, we are also delivering food to Aboriginal communities fortnightly.

Julie says that it’s difficult, within the service, or when supporting the community, to adhere to the social distancing rules.

‘It’s really hard not to hug someone when they need it. Sometimes it’s us who need a hug, but we’re not going anywhere. This is going to be a long haul.’

All the services need support from us. If you are able to offer support, in particular financial support, to any volunteer organisation, that is a great way to do your part to help the community to get through this really tough time.


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