Gerroa Jack's irreplaceable gift



Early in January I was fortunate enough to have lazy time by the sea, gazing out over a family beach and reading at leisure the daily newspapers. I had been musing the importance of unrecognised volunteers to the beach ecology when I came across a provoking article on volunteering.

Beach at GerroaThe core of the argument was that as a way of helping communities, volunteering is inefficient, often harmful in its effects. It undercuts paid work and lets governments off the hook. Charitable organisations help perpetuate the conditions they were founded to eradicate. The conclusion was that the time spent in volunteering would better be devoted upstream to persuade governments and corporations to change policies or programs for the better.

My first response to this argument was one of qualified agreement. It is necessary to hold governments responsible for the common good of society, and particularly for the welfare of the poorest and most vulnerable. It is wrong for governments to shift to community organisations the cost of supporting the mentally ill, people seeking asylum and the unemployed. It is also essential to propose and advocate to the government policies that accept its responsibility and discharges it effectively.

In fact many charitable bodies have policy and media sections that carry out this role. But governments usually resist accepting their own responsibilities and often try to muzzle charitable agencies that criticise their policies. Corporates are also reluctant to criticise governments on issues marginal to them, particularly when they stand to lose money by change.

In these circumstances working upstream effectively is not easy, particularly for the vulnerable. It will be arduous, conflictual, and must deal with the economic mechanisms that divert wealth from the needs of the community to the already wealthy. And it needs to be based in grass roots experience.

The article is also right to adduce instances of counterproductive volunteering. But most of these can be addressed by reforming the programs. It may be daft for volunteers to help schools better serve children by running fairs that sell sugar-rich sweets and drinks. But there is no need to cut out the fairs — simply cut out the sugar.

My time at the beach left me with an altogether deeper appreciation of the place of volunteers. Walking along the beach very early each morning I used to meet Jack, who lived some distance away. He walks up and down the beach gathering plastic, glass and paper into plastic bags, which he puts into the roadside bins. He chats with other early risers, and before he leaves he measures the water temperature and writes it on the sand. Further up the beach that stretches for ten kilometres or so, other people, mostly retired like Jack, also do their bit to keep the beach clean.


"The service Jack offers is a gift, and is valued as such by the people who use the beach. He brings together people who chat with him and who look for the writing on the sand before it is obliterated by the tide."


It is tempting to say that Jack and his mates should cease from their work and press the local council or state government to take responsibility for cleaning the beach, so obviating the need for volunteers. The council does indeed provide and empty rubbish bins at various entry points to the beach.

But imagine what might be lost. In the first place there is a quality of care. It is hard to imagine a paid employee with the same passion for detail arriving at the beach at 6am each day of the week. It is harder still to imagine any council ever making the necessary expenditure on a single beach a high priority.

But more the quality of service would be lost. The deepest value of volunteering lies in the relationships that it fosters. The service Jack offers is a gift, and is valued as such by the people who use the beach. He brings together people who chat with him and who look for the writing on the sand before it is obliterated by the tide. Out of people's interactions with him come a deeper awareness of the fragility of the beach, a more attentive care for it and a deeper sense of the gift that beach and people are to the community.

Then, too, there is the evident happiness that his voluntary work gives to Jack and the pride that he takes in his work. His work does not replace the responsibilities of the local council; his cooperation with it makes personal the relationship between council and users of the beach.

What is true of Jack's gift is true of other volunteers. The deepest value of the work of the Vinnies volunteers, with whom I am most familiar, lies in the local and sustained relationships established with the people whom they visit. Their gift is less the food or the voucher they bring than the presence, the respect and the listening to the stories people tell. Those relationships and the wisdom that comes from them are a gift to society and ground the advocacy for better policy that the Vinnies make. Volunteers are irreplaceable.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, volunteers, Vinnies



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Existing comments

I agree wholeheartedly. This morning I walked into a second-hand bookstore, run by Lions (and Lionesses), to raise money for charitable works in our town. I bought a couple of books for my grandchildren and the change I had in my purse wasn't enough to pay fully. The Lioness at the table said to me "don't worry, just give what you have."

Pam | 31 January 2018  

Luke 17: 10

AO | 31 January 2018  

A beautiful beach where I spent many years playing footy on the beach with the Jesuits on the beach. They have a house overlooking the beach at which we had Sunday Mass. The beach was spotless then. Good on Gerroa Jack!

Peter Ricketts | 01 February 2018  

Sorry I missed you on the beach Andy. We were there at the same time. I have obviously missed Jack. I have been moved to a more attentive zone after reading your piece. Thanks again for laying out your thoughts so cogently.

Vic O’Callaghan | 01 February 2018  

Niall Ferguson, Scottish economic historian, describes in his Reith Lecture #4, "Civil and Uncivil Societies" ( describes how volunteerism grew from his own single effort to pick up rubbish on a beach in South Wales. His other lectures are worth listening to, also.

Peter Horan | 01 February 2018  

Hi Andy, I have been doing this everyday on my jog since my retirement about a year ago. It sometimes feels like an endless commitment, so thanks for your encouragement.

Michael Furtado | 01 February 2018  

Thanks for this important article. A few years ago as a volunteer I helped a mentally ill woman start to look after herself. She had professionals she saw regularly, but the help she needed was intense. She wanted to give up smoking against the advice of her doctor, but I said if you want to give up, I'll give you the moral support and give up she did. It was very difficult and I often regretted my offer but we hung in and what an achievement. She didn't know how to shop for food or to cook, so I'd ring her late afternoons and tell her what I was cooking for dinner. It wasn't really our dinner but was something simple to give her ideas and she started cooking. She didn't ever come to my home, it was either the phone or I'd take her out to a cafe for coffee and sandwich. My children learned how to handle a mentally ill person with compassion. Through all those years I found the only way to quieten an "episode" was to keep reciting the 23rd Psalm, the Lord's Prayer etc. It's a very sad society if one can't help another person with no thought for personal reward.

Jane | 01 February 2018  

A man in Sydney picked up rubbish on a beach and took it to a rubbish bin . The bin was full because the council had not only not kept the beach clean, but not emptied the rubbish bins either, so he put the rubbish on the ground under the bin. The council rewarded him by issuing him with a fine for littering.

Jenny O'Rourke | 01 February 2018  

I work as a volunteer for my local Council, which supports the work of 400 volunteers. These volunteers don't undercut paid work. (In fact, there are very strict government regulations which prevent employing volunteers being used in roles previously held by paid workers). Some work, particularly in human welfare areas, just can't be filled by paid workers. The relationship someone has with a volunteer is very different from the one they can have with someone who is paid to talk with them, visit them or feed them. And yes, good policies, procedures and supervision are necessary for volunteers working with vulnerable people. But paid work among them is a necessary replacement for work family and community no longer provide. Voluntary work isn't the replacement, but the community looking after its own. Gerroa Jack should be the norm!

Joan Seymour | 01 February 2018  

My memory may not be accurate, and I can't be certain of its theological orthodoxy, but I seem to recall a Canadian Jesuit telling me and others during an Ignatian Retreat that God the Son was a volunteer for the task of becoming God among us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Uncle Pat | 01 February 2018  

With all kinds of lofty motives and probably heaps of vainglorious ideas I set out to volunteer to teach English to children in a poor part of Thailand. I feel that I failed. Though others have assured me otherwise noting the help I had been to some teachers and students and one or two other volunteers. I had to pay about a 3 star hotel rate for my accommodation and food and some friends helped me pay my way. However the system needed serious challenging. Voluntourists are encouraged to spend time teaching, even for a few weeks as part of their gap year or grand tour. "Go to a beach, smoke some dope in Vientiane, do a bit of volunteering, take a river trip..."Most of those with whom I worked knew almost noting about teaching and some had poor English speaking skills. But the organizers considered that young tourists just spending time with the children was valuable. I met two volunteers who understood and had mastered the intricacies of teaching Thai children. Both had been in Thailand for years. One was Spanish and the other from Suriname. Schools do not complain as they gain some kudos for having an English speaker with some qualifications on their staff. But how that visitor is incorporated in the work of the school is problematic. And I think it is unfair on the children to have such transitory visitors of such varying abilities. Some of the regular teaching staff resent fly in foreigners but would never directly express their discomfort. The dilemma arising from Andrew's article is whether I should have tried to improve the dysfunctional system or sucked it up and done what was possible. But the issue is worth exploring.

Michael D. Breen | 02 February 2018  

“Volunteers are irreplaceable.” Is this assertion empirical or normative? Volunteers are irreplaceable because there are too few of them to be matched to the number of volunteer service positions that are calling out to be filled. But, this ought to be the case because most of these service positions should have been paid employment for somebody. The unemployment figures dictate what is a just ratio between paid and volunteer work. If there are as many ‘somebodies’ in need of an income as there are of those positions, they should all be paid positions. If there are fewer people in need of an income than there are of those positions, volunteers should step in to fill the difference. If it is dogma that labourers are worthy of their hire, all volunteers must be remunerated, just not in money. Because money means sustenance, those who need to be remunerated in sustenance should take priority over those who can afford to take their remuneration in another form. If Gerroa Jack needs money, volunteering is an injustice to him: he should be paid. If he doesn’t, he is a placeholder for that actual person who needs money and who could be doing the beachcombing.

Roy Chen Yee | 06 February 2018  

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