On volunteering and inspiration

Darkness shrouds Bellbird Grove. A parking marshall in a bright orange vest with yellow reflective stripes waves a glowing red wand, indicating that we should park further down the road. He is smiling despite the time. The sun won’t rise for another two hours but the oval is brightly lit by the warm orange-yellow light of a generator-driven set of flood lights. I make a bee-line towards the large white marquee under which I see a small huddle of people wearing bright green vests. Welcome to the Oxfam Trailwalker Brisbane weekend: volunteer perspective.

Oxfam Trailwalker Brisbane is an annual even in it’s fourth edition. This inspirational experience draws thousands of dedicated people who each play their part in raising money to help Oxfam Australia alleviate poverty around the world.
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First there are approximately 900 walkers. These extraodinary people who live ordinary lives form up into teams of four to raise almost a million dollars for Oxfam Australia. Not only do they fundraise but they train for and walk either 55km or 100km through the bush as a team with a 24 hour and 48 hour time limit respectively.
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Second come the support crews, numbering somewhere between 500 – 1,000 people. These are the family and friends who usually have no idea what they have been talked into doing. Perhaps they’ve been told, “Oh, just bring some food to some checkpoints; it’ll be easy”. But easy their task isn’t. They will be awake most of the weekend driving to each checkpoint, carting heavy boxes and bags filled with food and clothing, cooking meals on camp stoves, filling drink bottles and encouraging their weary (and sometimes cranky) teams to continue to the finish no matter how sore or tired the walkers feel. And, at the end, these generous souls don’t even get a finisher’s certificate and often don’t realise how integral they are to their team’s success because they say, “Oh, we haven’t done anything; they did all the walking.
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Third there are between 350 – 500 volunteers who each give up between four to twenty-four hours of their weekends plus driving time to help Oxfam’s fabulous staff put the event on. It’s not glamorous work but when it comes to volunteer experiences, it is one of the most rewarding. Oxfams’s staff, the walkers and their support crews are always gracious to the volunteers and perhaps that, along with the knowledge that we are contributing to something bigger, keeps us coming back for more.
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My personal experience volunteering at Oxfam Trailwalker Brisbane 2014 was absolutely amazing. I camped at Checkpoint 5 for most of the event, filled three separate volunteer roles and even had time to catch up with friends between my shifts. It all started with that early morning shift at Registration where I filed emergency contact and medical forms to the soundtrack of nervous and excited walkers’ voices as they made their way through the registration process. The five hours flew by and 9am came around so quickly I barely noticed the sun having risen three hours earlier. I filled the hours between 9am and my next shift at 10pm by sleeping, going out to lunch and laughing as I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. At 10pm I reported to the Event Control Centre. This shift was a quiet one in which my only real task was to drive someone out to Checkpoint 3. But the hour long drive was delightful as I got to know my passenger and then I bumped into some people I knew at the checkpoint so had a yarn before driving back. While it was a quiet shift, I got to see how the event is coordinated and the absolutely tireless work the Oxfam staff, rangers and emergency services put into event safety. Their dedication made me feel rather embarrassed about falling asleep in my chair at 6am just before my shift was due to end.
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After getting plenty of rest during the day, I was refreshed and ready for action at Checkpoint 6 at 10pm that night. Only thirteen of the 275 teams were left to be checked in and the volunteer team I worked with worked hard to keep them motivated so close to the finish. With a volunteer dressed as a penguin (complete with full black face paint because penguins have black faces) and an old stray dog for company (we later learned the dog was 18 years old), we cheered teams in, filled their water bottles when they or their support crews were too tired to walk to the taps, bolstered the confidence of walkers who needed to retire so close to the finish so they knew they had achieved something amazing in getting this far and were kept busy with all the little jobs that allow these courageous walkers to complete their journeys.

For me, this is why I come back every year. Having walked the course in 2011, I know how tough it is to stay motivated when your body and mind are screaming to stop. Having crewed in 2013, I know how challenging it is to stay alert and put your team’s needs first when all you want to do is curl up asleep in a warm bed. Those who finish the course on the first day are phenomenal athletes and I admire their dedication to their training. But it’s those who struggle all the way to the end who have captured my heart and for whom I hope to don the green vollie’s vest again for many years to come. These ordinary women and men had the courage to say, “I don’t know whether we can make it because we’ve never done anything like this before but let’s just give it a go”. For some it’s their first foray into hiking. For others it’s even the first time they’ve decided to get serious about exercise. And yet they sign up. To those who didn’t finish: you are phenomenally courageous for even having started. There is no failure at Trailwalker because you gave so much of yourselves so that others less fortunate may benefit. And that’s truly inspiring. And for those who did: congratulations on an epic effort.

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