Photo and story by Angela Reid, Marketing Volunteer
They may not realise it, but Dunedin Plunket volunteers are benefitting from an ongoing 2-for-1 deal.
“We kind of think of ourselves as a joint package now,” says Otago Plunket’s Community Support Co-ordinator Nikita Choveaux (pictured left), before breaking into laughter.
“Yep, definitely,” says Emilee Third, her colleague and friend.
Emilee and Nikita are office buddies at Otago Plunket’s headquarters in Lorne Street, South Dunedin. They run separate volunteer programmes but their approach is collaborative, and their attitude and close relationship are proving to be assets for them, their manager and the volunteers they look after.
About 1500 people volunteer for Plunket in this country, making up about 60% of the organisation’s workforce, Nikita says. While many people associate Plunket with nursing and health checks for infants, it also provides other services for 0–5-year-olds, such as home help, car seat checks, playgroups and community events, and it’s in these community-service areas that most of the volunteers appear.
Emilee is Dunedin’s Home Help Service Co-ordinator. She manages about 20 volunteers as well as the clients using the service. Nikita helps families access Plunket services – such as linking them to playgroups or organising clothing bundles — and teaches safety and injury prevention for children aged under 5. She also organises Plunket events.
Nikita started her job in September 2019 and Emilee joined her the following April — which meant meeting each other for the first time over Zoom, as Aotearoa was in Level 4 lockdown at the time.
The women, who have both had Plunket babies themselves, found they had a similar attitude towards their work.
“I think when we both joined Plunket, we both came in with a view of how we could shake things up, I guess, and make things run a bit better, and kind of keep up with the changing community,” Nikita says.
“We started with a lot of ideas, and it was quite nice to have someone else who came in with the same attitude. We’ve been able to achieve quite a lot actually, yeah.”
She and Emilee apply what is essentially a big-picture approach to their volunteers. They want volunteers to see themselves as belonging to the organisation as a whole, not just as part of a particular programme or holding a defined role. This means that whatever a volunteer’s individual role may be, they will have the support of both women.
“When the volunteers are connected with both of us, they can kind of see the bigger picture of what they’re doing,” Nikita says.
This sense of connection begins with the volunteers’ training. Nikita joins Emilee in home help training sessions, where she provides more than the required safety education. Their ‘two heads are better than one’ advantage ensures everything’s covered, and Nikita helps keep volunteers engaged, jumping in to give an example or ask a question to encourage others to speak up. It’s also good to have a second trainer there to provide extra reassurance for volunteers who feel nervous about particular aspects of the role, Nikita says.
“We find that the two of us doing the training in tandem really helps with getting our ‘go to Plunket’ message across, and it helps the volunteers feel quite connected with us and they’re more likely to come help at my events once they’ve met me,” she says.
Getting to know both women also means that if a volunteer needs to talk to Emilee about a problem or question when she’s away, there’s someone else they’re familiar with there to talk to. This reassures Emilee that her volunteers are being looked after and will feel supported, she says.
The pair hope to give their volunteers a sense of belonging to the wider organisation by ‘overlapping’ them. Some of Emilee’s home help volunteers lend a hand at Nikita’s events or with “little things that pop up sometimes if we just need an extra pair of hands,” Emilee says.
Nikita gives an example of her “major event of the year”, Childrens Day Out, for which she recruits about 20 new volunteers to help at the Plunket stall.
“The last time, I got Emilee to sort of be their point of contact for the day, delegating the jobs and checking in on them. And we were hoping that having spoken to me in the lead-up to the event and knowing who I was and then meeting Emilee on the day, they were a bit more likely to stay on and become home help volunteers.
“So just trying to build that kind of connection with Plunket in general and what we’re trying to achieve in the community.”
Such events can be valuable experience for volunteers, as many of them are students. Emilee and Nikita have worked with volunteers studying pharmacy, social work, nursing, early childhood or psychology, as well as some law students intending to specialise in family law.
“It’s quite good for them to get a bit of experience working in the community and seeing what life is like for people that they might be working with later in a more professional kind of setting,” Nikita says.
Emilee says their volunteers appreciate their approach. “They’re comfortable enough to come along to morning tea and join in with our office banter as well,” she says.
The arrangement has their boss’ approval too. Nikita says they have a “really good manager” in Catherine Caley who supports them and trusts them to do their job. And with Nikita and Emilee backing and managing each others’ volunteers, it means Catherine doesn’t have to step into that role herself.
“I think she sees the bigger picture of giving the volunteers that sense of belonging within Plunket; it’s going to mean that they stay on for longer. Because they enjoy it, they’re welcome here anytime, it’s just part of their life as well as them being a part of our role,” Emilee says.
Emilee’s always looking for new volunteers for the home help service, especially at the start of each year. These volunteers visit a family at home once or twice a week for about six weeks, for around 1-1½ hours each time, and usually support the family by doing household chores. Home help volunteers need to be reliable and able to commit long-term; and while they don’t have to have parenting experience themselves, it’s important that they’re kind, compassionate and empathetic, and can understand the struggles of parenthood, Emilee says.
“[The family] could be just going through a hard time or maybe struggling with an unsettled baby or have twins. So just an extra pair of hands around the house, just to ease some of that stress [is needed].”
It would be inappropriate for a male volunteer to support the vulnerable mothers needing home help, but Emilee can suggest the man lend a hand at one of Nikita’s events.
Plunket events were derailed by the Covid pandemic. Most were cancelled at Alert Level 2, and the uncertainty made planning a real headache for Nikita. She normally recruits volunteers early in the event-planning process. However, it helped that the duo already had a “base of engaged volunteers” and she could tap into Emilee’s pool of home help volunteers. “When I’ve already got police-vetted volunteers who have met me before it just makes that step a lot easier to manage in different alert levels,” she says.
The pandemic also hindered the pair’s efforts to come up with social events for their volunteers, as they want to encourage them to get to know each other better. But towards the middle of 2021, Emilee put out their first newsletter for volunteers. Full of updates, upcoming events, opportunities, good news stories and positive feedback, these bi-monthly newsletters are a way of instilling a sense of achievement within the group, reinforcing the good work they’re doing and showing the difference they’re making in the community.
“We’re just trying to think of ways to really keep them happy and keep them engaged,” Emilee says.
It’s clear she and Nikita are happy in their work and thriving on their arrangement. They’re all smiles, and clearly love their roles. (“We would talk all day about our work if we could!” Nikita laughs.)
A critical factor in this success is the valuable emotional support that comes with their team-based approach. Emilee appreciates having Nikita as a sounding board to talk things through with, someone she can talk to in confidence and brainstorm with, especially about “high-need clients” who present them with challenging situations.
Nikita echoes this sentiment. She says it’s helpful having an understanding colleague to chat with, and the fact she can trust Emilee to help manage and support her volunteers reduces her stress levels. Their teamwork is invaluable.
“Quite often in Plunket, because we are in the community, you can feel like you’re working in isolation a lot,” Nikita says. “So having someone you’re working so closely with makes a huge difference just for your general wellbeing at work, I think.”
And that workplace wellbeing can only foster a positive experience for the volunteers they work with. It seems this unique 2-for-1 deal at Plunket will be available for a long time yet and those who sign up for it are joining something special.