Volunteering is Good for the Soul (and more)

Cover image is me and some other volunteers entering a business fire. Image: Hardy Photographika.

I recently had a conversation with someone who quizzed me on my volunteer background and questioned why I did it. This caused me to reflect and I thought it would make a good blog post.

I can't pinpoint the exact time or reason that I started giving freely of my time, but it was when I was young. I've been volunteering for almost as long as I can remember and probably kicked into top gear when I was in high school.
I wasn't into sports and didn't have a huge amount of social or extra curricular stuff going on outside of school and these opportunities provided me with a new outlet. I also always enjoyed being behind the scenes of things and helping to keep it running. To this day, I prefer to be running around helping to put something together than sitting in the audience watching the apparently carefully curated event unfold.

It's also important to take into account that this, seemingly by chance, nature to be giving of my time and energy has always returned good things. Whether it be jobs, important life experiences or friends, I can attribute much of my greatest moments to a volunteer cause.

Throughout this piece I'm going to explore different opportunities that presented themselves and what benefit it returned to me. I hope I can inspire someone to try something new or volunteer themselves for a good cause.

So, lets wind back the clock to around the 2005 mark. I was fairly new to high school and wasn't really looking for something to do, but it found me. I can't remember how exactly I got introduced, but I found myself joining the Australian Army Cadets. This is a youth organisation which allows teenagers up to 18 to have a real experience in numerous areas.
I remember turning up and watching 20 or so teenagers carry out drill (military marching) under the command of another teenager. They learned about, well I can't remember what, but something to do with the army and sat around the old artillery gun whilst they ate dinner.
A few people I already knew were members and I thought, what the hell. I was hooked.

Me leading the Colour Party Me leading the Colour Party. Image: Port News.

You may be thinking this isn't really volunteering. But as I grew and was entrusted with leadership positions, it became more than an after school activity. It became a huge part of who I was and caused me to apply to join the Defence Force after high school. Obviously that didn't eventuate, but the experience taught me some crucial skills early on in life.

Leadership

Over the years, I went away to week long training exercises on an army base four hours from home. These taught new skills and refreshed old ones. The end game was a promotion to the next rank, culminating at Cadet Under Officer, the highest rank attainable to a cadet.
This meant I was in charge of my own squad, platoon or unit and was responsible for their drill, dress and bearing. I taught them new skills, helped them navigate the bush and occasionally pulled them aside if they weren't towing the line.

Community Service

As you may guess, cadets had a massive community focus at special times throughout the year. This included Anzac Day and Remembrance Day to name a couple.
These days required your drill, dress and bearing to be of the highest calibre. Weeks of intense training meant you were selected to bear a flag or man the cenotaph.
One year I was given the privilege to make the Dawn Service Address.
This was probably where my community spirit was enlightened.

Training

As I pointed out, teaching people was a large part of the cadet experience. This is where I gained a huge passion for helping people learn and understand new things. It's also where I found out that teaching someone else was the best way to cement knowledge into your own head.

Me and my good mate at a promotions course Me and my good mate at a promotions course

During this high school period, I also started picking up other things to do. I helped out with the Ironman Triathlon, took on a role as the A/V Tech person (and missed out on my own high school graduation because I was running the damn thing), helped teach my IT class because I had a better grasp than the substitute teacher and organised a large group of people to attend Relay for Life.

As high school wrapped up and I applied for the army, I had to bid farewell to cadets in what turned out to be very unfortunate circumstances.
The army recommended I take on a new activity which would give me some great teamwork experience. My mate I had met at cadets was in the NSW Rural Fire Service and I thought I would give that a crack.

Me in the early years Me in the early years

In between getting my first full time job, I started with the Communications brigade- it was a natural fit with me wanting to join the Signals Corp. this brigade was responsible for taking emergency calls from the Fire and Rescue NSW Triple Zero call centre and responding the appropriate fire appliances to the scene. They would then monitor and keep in contact with the boots on the ground.

Well, it wasn't long until I signed up to my local active brigade as well. I never do anything half assed, so it wasn't long before I had attended training courses for bush firefighting, village (structure) firefighting, first aid, rural fire driving, breathing apparatus operating, community engagement and was making a start on my training and assessment.

Gas cylinder pressure release training Gas cylinder pressure release training

Due to my love of helping people learn, and with the belief prevention is better than cure, I also joined the Community Engagement brigade- responsible for the engagement, teaching and information dispersal to the community. This included schools, community groups and activities, other brigades and even child care centres.

My passion and drive didn't stop there. I was put into various positions within my brigades- secretary, community engagement officer and eventually Deputy Captain. I suppose it goes without saying that I also completed my crew leader training.

Breathing apparatus training Breathing apparatus training

While this was going on, I decided there wasn't enough on my plate. I also joined the State Emergency Service and started completing the various courses on offer there.

So, what crucial learnings did I take from all this?

Leadership

I thrived in an environment that required leadership to come from everywhere. At any stage, for whatever reason, it may just be you and a couple of others between a problem and a resolution. Everyone is needed to act swiftly and take on responsibility if need be.

Training

I enjoyed imparting my knowledge onto others. Whether this be new members, the wider community or exisiting members, there was always new skills or information to be shared. I took on extra responsibilities to begin my training and assessment certifications.

Community engagement

Dealing with the wider community was a given at any point. Humans are bad at planning for things they don't believe could affect them. It was our job to help them plan for the worst and even ask people to move on when it was required.

Emergency management

In many situations, it became necessary to deal with any number of competing issues and pieces of information. Such is the requirement of emergency service workers. It requires you to stay cool under pressure and follow and act upon data and circumstances as it becomes evident.

Teamwork

We wouldn't be anywhere without the wider team. A range of skills, understandings, knowledge and experience ensures a better outcome for all.

So then after a number of years, I make the difficult decision to leave home and begin university in another state. It was the end of so much for me. First time I would be without family, life-long friends, and of course, the many organisations I had become heavily involved in. In moving interstate, I would only know a couple of people and would need to start everything from scratch.

University started and with it, new opportunities.
I don't ever do things by half measure, which I feel I have made clear throughout this post. So, when the chance came, I jumped on board more volunteering activities and new ways to challenge myself.

I started by helping with the university's open day. Giving up my time to help new potential students find there way around and understand what's on offer.
I joined the local chapter of the Australian Computer Society and indeed became a member of the committee.
It was also at this time that I found conferences and conventions and started travelling to attend or help out with those.
I attended YitCon and /dev/world in Melbourne, CompCon in Canberra and a Huawei road show in Brisbane.
I started to volunteer at Supanova at the Gold Coast and in Sydney, as well as Oz Comic Con in Brisbane and PAX in Melbourne. I fell in love with the community, people and inclusiveness of these wonderful events.

PAX! PAX!

Not contempt with that, I also took on a role as Peer Mentor for the School of ICT, helping new students settle, adjust and become familiar with university life. I was someone they could come to if they didn't feel comfortable going anywhere else, or indeed weren't sure where to go.
Further, I was hired as a Peer Assisted Study Leader, helping students who were struggling with the programming classes.

Me with some of my mentees Me with some of my mentees. Image: Griffith School of ICT.

During one exam period, I also took on a volunteer role with the G20 in Brisbane, security clearance and all. I was helping dignitaries at one of the hotels find their way around and provide assistance with transport and travel. Now, that was interesting. Some great conversations working closely with different local and international security, police and public servants.

It was truly during this phase that I found tech entrepreneurship and the startup culture. Where I was from in regional NSW was quite sheltered from this, and it grew in popularity as a true alternative to the ordinary job whilst I studied. Don't get me wrong, as someone whose dad owns a successful small business, I knew what being your own boss was and what self employment was, but I don't think I had realised what it could be.

After being immersed in my first Startup Weekend experience, I just couldn't get enough. I went to a few more over the years, as well as many hackathons. Just for the fun of it. How cool is bringing a new product to life over just a few hours with a small team? Seeing it go live and people start using it. It's an awesome experience.

Pitching at a Startup Weekend Pitching at a Startup Weekend. Image: Startup Weekend Brisbane Creative Tech.

In 2014, I helped to cofound the university's first entrepreneurial student club, Studio39. The university was certainly lacking a way for students to come together and just build some cool shit outside of the classroom and theory laden assignments. I helped to run workshops, bring in speakers, write blogs and form a community around tech entrepreneurship.

I was also engaged by the university's mentoring and leadership team who needed a new web app built to support their conference. I, along with a couple of others, gladly helped them out and built a well-received and valuable app.

In my final year, 2016, I took on the mammoth task of running the local GovHack competition. I formed a small team and planned, executed and successfully ran an awesome open data hackathon.
Not only was this my first time running an event on this scale, but it was also my first time being at a GovHack.
This was one of my proudest achievements by far.

Me and some GovHack organisers Me and some GovHack organisers

I learned some amazing new things over the four years at university. Some in class, but most of it was out of the classroom. There is so much self-guided learning available, you just have to be willing to take that on.
This was what I spoke about when I gave a presentation at CompCon last year. How can you make university better, and how can you improve your chances of being hired or fast track yourself to building your own startup?

Giving my talk at CompCon Giving my talk at CompCon. Image: Developer Steve.

Leadership

I became an even better leader. Helping to run a number of events, take on various leadership roles in different environments, and accomplish something new at every turn, allowed me to perfect my leadership skills

Event management

Running events, both small and large, helped me see how much impact I could have on many people at once. I enjoy bringing the community together in search of a common goal and running a seamless, well managed experience for all attending.

Public engagement

Dealing with the public, or people outside any organisation, can be difficult. I was able to navigate this hurdle successfully with my events and volunteering roles where it was required. Some empathy and humour can go a long way.

Teamwork

You are nothing without a great team. Just a fact.

Entrepreneurship

If you want something done right, do it yourself (with a great team). I love making new things happen, effecting change and getting back up after being knocked down.

Training

Always imparting knowledge without the expectation of return. It's how we keep society moving up.

After four years of immersing myself into everything possible and graduating (yay!), I made the decision to move to Melbourne, in the opposite direction and take a new role. I had/have big plans and reasons for this move which should soon come to realisation. Until, then let's catch up on what I've been doing since I got here.

I obviously have started my new job and eventually found somewhere to live. But as you may now have guessed, I have to be out doing something.
So, I have volunteered at a convention, helped out many nights after work to run events in our awesome event space and have started working with Code Club. Which is awesome. I'm really passionate about imparting knowledge, especially onto kids. #getkidscoding

Helping out at a hackathon at work Helping out at a hackathon at work. Image: Oindrila Das.

Perhaps the biggest role I've decided to take on though is with St John Ambulance. It's been a few years since I've been able to commit to an emergency service type agency and this one will give me some great new skills.

There is definitely more to come. So watch this space.

Now, where did I get at the end of all this? Why did I sit down a write this out over a number of nights? Well, I wanted to point out not only the great experiences I've had- making new friends and seeing some cool stuff-, but also the amazing new skills of learned and used. This have become somewhat invaluable for gaining new employment or putting them to use in new situations.
So I implore anyone looking at volunteering to get out there and do something. If you've never considered it before, please do. You never know what it may bring you.
You can choose something you already have an interest in, or be brave and give something entirely different a crack. What's the worst that could happen?

And if nothing else, some people around you may recognise your struggle... and try to help?...

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