Here in Australia, there are very strict laws about wages and volunteering. The minimum wage is nearly $18/hour, with many workers making over $20/hour for jobs that would pay eight or nine at home. Fair work laws state that anyone who is working to benefit the company/organization, unless they are doing it to get work experience for themselves, is entitled to at least the minimum wage. This makes volunteering much more difficult here than at home. After a lot of research (and a team effort), Michaela and I were finally able to find an organization that we could volunteer for without a long-term commitment or extensive application process. The organization, which is run by a neighboring university, is called BeachCare. The organization is open to all community members to participate in removing trash and weeds from the protected areas of the sand dunes and replacing them with native plant species that help preserve the beach and coastline. At the start of the day, the man running the event explained that at one point most of the plants on the dunes were removed to provide an uninterrupted view of the water from the shoreline homes and apartments. With time, people realized this was a dangerous move as it put the beach at risk of decay and removed the only protection these living areas had from costal storms. As a result, much of this area has since been replanted (and the work to restore all areas still continues).
I thought it was interesting that most of the volunteer opportunities here are beach based. You really don’t see any homeless people on the streets (I am sure there are plenty but not as many as you see in cities like Melbourne and Sydney). Instead, most of the service efforts are aimed toward preserving the Goldie’s biggest tourist draw—the beaches. One in four jobs in the Gold Coast are funded by the tourist industry, so keeping up with the popular tourist locations is important to the city’s economy.
It is important to volunteer as it gives us an opportunity to repay our communities. At some point, we all receive benefits from other volunteers or people engaging in random acts of kindness. Additionally, I know that some of my actions unintentionally have negative effects on the environment. Volunteering is a necessary way to minimize these effects. Service should be an important part of being a member of a global community, because members act for the benefit of the whole community and not just themselves. Volunteering is a good way to make the community more pleasant and welcoming for all members. I think it is particularly important to engage in service while studying abroad because it helps us thank our host communities for welcoming us as residents for four months. While I take public transport or walk nearly everywhere, I know my cross-country plane rides are not helping the hole in the ozone layer down here. As a result, I am trying to offset this impact by reducing my overall energy and water use—a slightly warm apartment never killed anyone, and air conditioning uses a lot of energy. It was also a unique experience because for the first time all semester, Michaela and I were the only non-Australians in the group. Strangely enough, no one asked us about our accents or the election. It was nice to blend in for a while and become a true part of the local community. We spent the day planting and weeding, while discussing the history of the beach landscape. We interacted with other students as well as young families and older adults. I loved the experience because it provided some insight into a typical Australian service lifestyle that I had not previously seen.
I think the following quote best sums up my experience and personal beliefs about volunteering: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth” –Muhammad Ali