THE abandoned, the socially isolated and the lonely are given a shoulder to lean on and a warm meal four nights a week by a group of volunteers who are trying to help the homeless and the disadvantaged of Cairns. About 170 volunteers of Rosies Friends on the Street have formed a kind of family and it’s this warmth and generosity that reaches out four nights a week from 7pm on Draper St. Tonight, this “family” will gather to celebrate the service reaching 25 years of operation on Cairns streets, while paying tribute to some of its longest serving volunteers and the Cairns businesses that keep the charity running.
Among those who will be recognised at the Rosies Cairns Branch 25 Years Strong evening is Joyce Coutts, who has been involved with Rosies for 22 years. At 85 years old, the Gordonvale resident can no longer volunteer with the service, having stopped about a year ago. “I just loved doing it,” she says. “I would have kept on going a while longer but I can’t drive at night anymore.” Joyce is a humble woman. When Rosies co-ordinator Lyall Forde told her she was the only platinum volunteer being recognised on the night, she had a pretty straight response for him. “I said they don’t have to give me a party,” she says. Joyce has seven children – four girls and three boys – and is the youngest from a family of eight. Her husband died while the children were young, leaving Joyce to work and raise them. By the time the kids were older and a little more independent, she became involved with Rosies.
“I’m a Catholic and I heard about it and decided I wanted to go, and went, and that’s it,” she says.
“The people that need help came to Rosies and we would give them something to take home. It was really good. I enjoyed every minute of it. We would take sandwiches and fruit, and went down with whatever we had. Now I am 85, I am just too old to really do much.”
Joyce’s daughter, Gloria Hinspeter, will join her mother for the Rosies celebration tonight and says the recognition for her is well deserved. “I think her life as it was, made her the woman she is today,” Gloria says. “She was always giving as much as she can and I have the utmost respect for her and what she has achieved in her life. Quite a few times lots of the family would say, ‘You shouldn’t be going there, it’s dangerous,’ but she would not listen to anyone. “She did not think it was dangerous, she would just say ‘it’s good for me and I’ll know when it’s time to give it up’. “She is very committed to doing what she could to help others.” The tales of selflessness continue and among them is that of Cairns branch co-ordinator Lyall Forde.
Lyall was working in the medical field when he decided he should be doing more than “collect the weekly salary”. He joined Rosies 15 years ago and now co-ordinates the local operation. He has now retired from his work as a psychiatric and general nurse, which included 20 years in Papua New Guinea. Twelve of those years were spent in “the bush” where he established a clinic for people who had lived whole lives with no medicine. “This was in 1976 and they had never had anything,” he says. “I had a 12-hour walk to the village and I stayed there with other nurses,” he says. “It was a team and I managed to start a school too. There were no older people and 78 per cent of all children died before the age of two (due mostly to malaria). We reduced it to 25 per cent. It was probably some of the happiest years of my life.” With up to 170 local volunteers with the service, Lyall says they are never short of helpers. “They are a cheerful crowd. They make me proud,” he says.
“One of the things about Rosies is we don’t put much demand on volunteers. We don’t have meetings and we ask them to come once a month only. That could be the reason for our success. You join and you do a night and then you go home. For the first six months you only do once a month, otherwise you burn out. We’ve got almost 170 in Cairns – that’s a lot of good people. I think people want to do something good.”
Among those volunteers are Cairns high schools, which have partnered with Rosies, so students can get involved. Lyall says students attend with a teacher or parent and get to see “another side of life”. Meanwhile, Rosies continues to operate successfully on the generosity of Cairns. The Muslim community has for years donated all the meals needed for a night, packaged and ready to go once a month. Hotels and church groups also regularly lend a hand. In fact, Double Tree Hilton, where the Rosies 25-year celebration is being held, has donated everything for the evening.
“Cairns is generous. There are wonderful people in the community,” Lyall says.
All walks of life access the service, with Lyall saying they regularly feed and offer friendship to the very young right through to the very old.
“I never ask where they are living,” he says. “They may tell me they’ve got a flat and pay $180 a week but they’ve got no money left or any extra money is going to cigarettes.”