Whenever you feel bad about yourself, volunteer

Whenever you feel bad about yourself, volunteer


Story and photo by Angela Reid

“That’s one thing my dad taught me. He says ‘whenever you feel bad about yourself, volunteer’. And I really believe that.”

Kirstin Bebell says this while sitting in a small but cosy room tucked away at the back of the Hope Centre, in Dunedin’s CBD. The centre’s the base for the Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust, an organisation providing support for people in mental distress and those left behind by loved ones who died by suicide.

In her volunteer role as chair of the Life Matters board of trustees, Kirstin works largely from home. But she’s still right in the thick of the mental health space.

She’s had a long-standing interest in mental health and feels that society’s failure to address it is one of the biggest problems we face now and will continue to face in the future.

But we have a powerful ally in volunteering.

“There’s a real benefit to volunteer work in that it creates a sense of belonging, it helps create a sense of being a benefit to the community, you know, helping people,” Kirstin says.

“And I think, from a mental health perspective, when we feel the most like we’re a burden to other people or like we have nothing to share, sometimes volunteering is a really excellent way to go about recognising your value because you’re able to share something with other people in the community.”

She suggests we look at life as being a stool. It has various legs, a number of which need to be strong and intact to support us well. The legs work alongside important aspects of selfcare such as physcial exercise and eating well. The emphasis placed on each leg — be it family, friends, paid work or volunteering, for example — will vary from person to person.

“And I see volunteering as one of those things that can help create that sense of being well-grounded and also well-supported in life.”

Kirstin’s life certainly has a strong volunteering ‘leg’. She’s originally from Colorado in the United States and has “spent a lot of time in a lot of places”. She’s also spent a lot time in a lot of volunteering roles and her volunteering experience is as broad as her international outlook.

Kirstin’s US volunteering CV is well-garnered. It includes being a Big Sister mentor for an 8-year-old girl from a minority culture and acting as area representative for an international youth exchange organisation. She’s also volunteered at a senior community living centre, playing piano for its dementia residents once a week and treating them to hand massages or aromatherapy. Then there’s her extensive international work. Among other things, the fluent Russian speaker translated and interpreted for immigrants and various organisations, and was an International Student and Scholar Host for a Colorado university for five years.

Kirstin’s been an international student herself: she’s studied in Russia and came to Dunedin in 2016 to do a Masters in International Studies at Otago University.

Three years later she was a Red Cross Refugee Resettlement Volunteer, helping a Palestinian family for almost a year. She’s also done environmental volunteering — she’s working with NZ Forest & Bird and has been a remote camp host for the Department of Conservation. She gets the odd call-up from the Yellow Eyed Penguin Trust too, mainly to help with planting days.

“I do care about a variety of issues,” Kirstin says, “so I’ve done a lot of different volunteering in different areas.”

Kirstin also believes in the power of words. She’s been working on a fiction book about suicide and mental health. Each day during the Level 4 lockdown she posted on Facebook, reflecting on gratitude, love and kindness during difficult times. In Level 3 Kirstin posted a poem every day.
She has a community-minded approach to writing. “It’s more, for me, about the ideas, the sharing of the approach, what we can do differently, how can we come together as a community, rather than just who has the most beautiful writing,” she says.

Kirstin had been a volunteer member of the Dunedin Writers Workshop executive committee for three years when she was “looking to do something a little bit different in a different field”. She approached Volunteer South manager Leisa de Klerk in July 2020 hoping to find something that would provide a change. They looked at the roles available and just two months later Kirstin was chair of the Life Matters board.

Her chairing role involves more than just operational matters like setting agendas and preparing papers for monthly board meetings, interviewing potential team members and ensuring financial transparency.

It’s her job to ensure everyone is valued and their perspective is heard, she says.

“I think one of my primary responsibilities is helping with culture creation and management, making sure that the board is a safe place for everybody to speak their mind and to share what they want to share — particularly considering the goal of Life Matters is suicide awareness and taking care of people’s mental health,” she says.

As chair, Kirstin sets the tone for an inclusive, egalitarian and holistic culture within the trust: where members are free to contribute their specialist skills and experience; where they can “actually show up and be who [they] really are”; where diversity informs decisions that affect the whole organisation.

She and the other board members support the trust’s founder and general manager, Corinda Taylor, and Kirstin’s role also has an element of “just being an extra pair of eyes and ears for the organisation as it goes along”, she says.

Kirstin appreciates the vantage point her Life Matters role gives her. It keeps her in Aotearoa’s mental health loop and she’s grateful it enables her to learn more about what’s being done in the community. It also allows her to see the perspectives and approaches of different stakeholders, many of whom have voices on the board, which she finds fascinating. And Life Matters also gets to be part of the mental health conversation when it’s approached for comments or ideas about broader initiatives.

“I feel more involved in the community that way,” she says. “It’s not just ideas in my head that I write down on a piece of paper… there’s more of a manifestation within the community.”

Kirstin isn’t in paid work in New Zealand at the moment and she acknowledges that unemployed people can feel “unwanted, almost [like] it can weigh on you when you have skills and nobody wants to use them”.

But she sees her Life Matters chairing role as a professional position and appreciates being able to share her professional skills.
She also hopes her involvement in such a visible organisation will keep her engaged with the community.

“I’m looking to create connections, that’s what it really is. And you never know where those connections will lead.”

*To make an appointment with the Hope Centre or for more information about the Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust go to lifematters.org.nz or email the trust at contact@lifematters.org.nz
**If this article has brought up mental health issues for you and you’d like to talk to someone, please go to https://www.healthed.govt.nz/resource/helplines-and-mental-health-services for contact details of support services.