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“The Red Bag isn’t just a bag – it’s an experience.”

Published Monday 25 November 2019
  • Hardship Relief

Volunteers are the lifeblood of Emergency Relief (ER) in Fortitude Valley. With only 5 paid staff members, over 50 volunteers work across all services at ER in a weekly period, keeping the doors open, welcoming people who are at their lowest point to receive food, referrals and support to help get their lives back on track. And while they’re making a difference in lives of those doing it most tough, ER is making a difference to their lives, too.

Cary, Jenny, Redeem, and Alyssa are all long-term volunteers at ER – both Alyssa and Redeem started volunteering around 12 months ago as part of a university placement, and never stopped. Cary has been volunteering for around two years, and Jenny for three years.

“Volunteers do a bit of everything here, from client interviews, to making sandwiches and packing hampers,” says Alyssa. Cary adds, “you usually spend half the day on the front desk and then the other half of the day out the back working behind the scenes,” and Redeem agrees, “there’s no top-down approach. Everyone is involved in everything.”

Jenny says the reason why so many volunteers last at ER is because of how they are treated. “Put simply, we are valued,” she says. “We feel so supported by Moroni (the manager) and the team; we feel that what we do is valuable and it’s making a difference. It might be just giving someone a sandwich, but seeing the smile you can put on the face of someone at their lowest – it’s so rewarding.”

Not only is their longevity contributed to the rewarding work they feel they’re doing for the community, it’s also in part due to what volunteering gives back to their own lives.

“It’s made me feel more confident in my ability to adapt in situations, and my ability to make friends and be social,” says Alyssa. Redeem agrees. “I have struggled with anxiety and mental health concerns, and I knew coming here would be a bit of a challenge for me, but I also knew it would be great for me. And it is. This place has given me so much confidence – it’s like a home away from home.”

This is a sentiment that they all agree with.

“My private life is quite stressful,” says Jenny. “I had to resign from my job due to backpain and have had trouble finding work due to a lack of skills, so I’m living on Newstart,” she explains. “I started coming to ER when my service provider suggested I take on some volunteering to enhance my skills and experience. And I just love coming here, I would hate to stop volunteering.

Many of the clients I meet are dealing with similar things that my own family deals with, and I did wonder if volunteering here might be a bit too close to home for me. But it’s given me a better understanding of people, what they’re going through, and it’s helped to improve my patience and it’s definitely boosted my confidence.”

Redeem chimes in, “around 70% of people volunteering here are experiencing the same or similar issues to the ones the clients experience,” she explains. “We aren’t professional case workers, but we’re able to offer our lived experience to others, so clients feel like they have someone they can relate to and they feel accepted, welcomed and not judged. That’s really special, and it makes us feel accepted and worthy, too. It’s empowering, for us and the clients.”

“It’s opened up a lot of life to me that I wasn’t aware of before,” adds Cary. “It’s made me realise how privileged my life is. It’s given me the opportunity to understand what others are dealing with in life, and it makes me more aware of other people in the world. It expands your capacity for compassion and acceptance.”

Soon ER will get ready to hand out as many as 250 Red Bags a day over the Christmas period to people in need. Jenny, Redeem, Cary and Alyssa all say that it’s the busiest time of the year, and it can be very full on, but it’s also very rewarding.

“The Red Bag Appeal is amazing, “says Jenny. “When clients come in to get a bag, I think of the donors. I feel sorry that they can’t see the looks on the faces of the people who receive the bags. We see such a positive difference in our clients in the weeks when we hand out the bags. They are so happy, there is such joy. And often Christmas is not a happy time for a lot of people.

“A lot of clients are disconnected from family, so to them, we are like their family,” she continues. “Because a lot of the volunteers here have been part of the service for years, we really get to know clients personally, so we really are like the only family they experience. One day, I gave a client a hug, and he said he couldn’t remember the last time he had been hugged by anyone.”

Cary agrees. “A Red Bag doesn’t just feed someone for a day – there is so much more that comes along with it. It’s an experience.”

“It opens doors and reconnects people at Christmas, a time when they need it most,” adds Redeem.

 “That connection is so important. We have clients who come in with a lot of anger inside them, and that anger is damaging because it’s isolating. And they come in here and they talk to people and they accept each other and relate to each other, and they don’t feel so angry anymore. Which is vital, because anger can do bad things – it breaks down your self-belief that good things can happen, which is essentially the meaning of Christmas here, isn’t it? Spreading hope and joy. A lot of us take for granted that Christmas is going to be one of the happiest times of the year, but for people who are torn away from their families or have terrible or no family relationships, it’s a very lonely time and people can often feel suicidal.

“During the Christmas period when we’re handing out Red Bags to clients, it’s probably the time of year where we see the most people cry – but it’s out of happiness, not sadness.”

“Just knowing that someone cares about them, has such a huge impact,” says Alyssa. “Clients tell us all the time how grateful they are, and it makes working here so moving. It makes me keep coming back to volunteer, even though my placement ended a long time ago. It’s hard to see the struggles people are going through, but I also think, okay, this is happening in the world, but I have the ability to do something about it.”

All four volunteers acknowledge that the need for the service is increasing every year, and they don’t want to have to turn people away.

“Tragedy can touch anyone’s life at any time,” says Alyssa. “A lot of people are just one disaster away from becoming homeless. We want people to know that they’re not a personal failure because of the things they’ve endured in their lives, and that their struggles don’t have to define them.”

Redeem agrees. “We all need to learn to love ourselves and learn the resilience we need to keep going. We want to make people feel human again. That’s the real impact of a service like ER.”

To find out more about the Appeal or how you can help, head to the Red Bag Appeal website