Volunteer Voices-"You don’t know what your community is about until you volunteer"-Julia Larkin

Julia wearing Red Cross overalls with a rope over her shoulder, standing in front of a Red Cross Truck

Everyone faced changes in 2020 and many Kiwis saw COVID as a chance to reset their focus. The impact of the pandemic, in addition to entering the empty nest phase of life, certainly changed Julia Larkin’s direction and opened new opportunities for her to both give and receive.

Raised in Dorset, England, Julia and her partner came to New Zealand 16 years ago with their two very young children. After contributing their sought-after graphic design skills in Auckland for five years, they fell in love with Wanaka on a holiday trip and very quickly made the move to the Central Lakes. Starting their own business and raising two children kept them occupied, with Julia’s limited spare time devoted to silk painting and participating in the weekly art market as a way to get to know others in the area.

Already going through a change with her kids growing up (now 21 & 23), COVID gave Julia even more time on her hands by immediately and drastically reducing the demand for their business. When she saw the ad on Facebook from Volunteer South looking for new volunteers in the community, Julia raised her hand to help in any way. She was soon matched up to provide food vouchers to migrants suddenly out of work.
After initially distributing the vouchers from cold grocery store lobbies, they moved into the Wanaka Community Hub and now had a space to talk rather than just hand over a voucher. That was the start of the most challenging part of Julia’s journey, but also led to what she is most proud of.
As she and her fellow volunteers started to hear personal stories and truly see the level of stress people with no prospects were experiencing, they started building connections. Not knowing how to support people who were feeling very low and were far from home carried a heavy emotional toll, but her supportive mum skills came into play as they gave kindness and hugs to those in need.

Knowing that wasn’t enough, and seeing that the young people wanted to do something rather than just receive, Julia and her colleague reached out to the marvelous Food for Love team and created a program where those out of work could come in, cook together for others and have a hot meal. Most importantly, they were brought into the community, were able to connect with others and to feel good about themselves instead of feeling so low. The impressive turnout (30-40 people the first time) led to other events like the Christmas Dinner in July where 130 people gathered in the Community Hub to share hope and laughter.

The joy of seeing people change from despair to smilingly engaged with their community was so uplifting for Julia that she was gutted when the voucher program was due to transition to different leadership. She raised her hand again and was asked by the New Zealand Red Cross to be the Wanaka Red Cross Visitor Care Facilitator. In this role, not only was she able to expand the help offered, but also received support for herself and training on how best to deal with distressed people and how to speak with people going through trauma.

Julia experienced the joy of working with other Red Cross volunteers and being part of both a local and national team doing what they could to help everyone get through a difficult time. That was a motivating factor to raise her hand yet again for different roles once the food support transitioned from the Red Cross to the Government directly. She’s a driver for Meals on Wheels, a helper at the Hospice Shop and perhaps most outside the range of her comfort zone, a New Zealand Red Cross Disaster Response Team Volunteer.

Preparing to deal with community emergencies across New Zealand, the Queenstown Disaster Response Team trains together once every two weeks and occasionally takes on more intensive training, such as three days in Christchurch for ground rescue training. Julia loves spending time with the fun and supportive team and using the skills she has learned in her various Red Cross training over the last year.

What would Julia say to others considering volunteering? “Do it! You don’t really know what your community is about until you volunteer. It’s the easiest thing to do and you will soon feel a real part of what is going on around you. Reach out to your local volunteer group who can put you into contact with the right organization for you.”

For Julia herself, someone who always thought volunteering “would be nice to do one day but was never proactive about it,” the experience has truly changed her life for the better. Being useful at a quite difficult time provides “a real sense of worth and fills the void of kids or work transitions.” She is fulfilled and happy. “Life is so much more satisfying now. All these opportunities open up once you put yourself into the realm of volunteering with the chance to discover a whole new facet of life.”

Read more about Red Cross at the website: https://www.redcross.org.nz/

Written by Susan Merriman, 2021