By Kate Schmidt
Colm Lavin’s idea of street people was like many other Australians -people living underneath cardboard boxes to keep warm.
That notion was turned on its head though, when he and his wife Michelle, started volunteering for Rosies -Friends of the Street.
“There was this nice, neat row of middle-aged gentleman, quite smartly dressed and I must admit the first person I spoke to was articulate and intelligent -they didn’t fit into my idea of street people,” Colm remembers of his first Rosies outreach at Southport. “That’s something I didn’t realise. I just thought we’d help people who lived on the street and that was a real eye-opener with my perception and what they are. It’s not what you think and of course there’s different types of people and circumstances.”
Colm’s wife Michelle is the branch coordinator at Burleigh and it was through her passion for volunteering that he got involved. Speaking about his wife, Colm said it was her Christian values that underpin her desire to help others less fortunate than herself.
The couple, who have been together since they were teenagers, immigrated to Australia with their four children from the UK 20 years ago and have been involved with Rosies for the last 13 years. Michelle said she’s always had a calling to volunteer work and during her high-school years helped out at a soup kitchen. She said it “It wasn’t something that I had to do, I was drawn to it and it aligned with where I was heart-wise,” she said. “It wasn’t about the soup, it was about talking to them and that’s what we also do at Rosies.”
Michelle and Colm started their joint volunteer journey when it was time for their eldest child to celebrate high school graduation at the Gold Coast’s iconic Schoolies event. “We started the year before [our child’s graduation] because we didn’t know what it was going to end up being and then we were there for the next five years,” he said.
The couple enjoyed volunteering together so much that Colm joined Michelle at the Rosies outreach, which at the time was at Southport. “We’ve been married such a long time and we spend a lot of time together -it’s just an extension of our marriage,” Colm said.
Michelle said it was comforting to have her husband around so the male patrons had someone to talk “guy stuff”, like cars and bands and boy stuff, with. She said often people were lonely and just wanted a chat.“ There was one man talking to my husband, I think he was an astrophysicist and he had a breakdown that led to [substance abuse] and he lost family. He’s a really intelligent person and just wants to have a conversation with someone.”
Colm said he’d met so many interesting people over the years, but there was a particular moment after a Christmas outreach that hasn’t left him. He’d overheard one of the volunteers talking to a patron who had taken some goodies from a Christmas lunch but was back again. “They’d thought he wouldn’t need to come back for a while but he said all of the things were gone already and he rattled off what he’d done. Well, the cheese went to one of the ladies in his housing units, the toys he had gone to another lady with children, and the other cakes and stuff he’d shared with neighbours,” he said.“He’d basically given everything away. He didn’t keep anything for a rainy day.” Colm said it was really powerful to hear that people who didn’t haven’t got anything find it easier to give to others. “It’s just what they do,” he said.
Colm and Michelle are both huge advocates for volunteer work and it’s a value they teach their own children. “They know how active we are and so do their friends and when the time is ready for them, I’m sure they will volunteer however they can.”
But it’s not just within his family that Colm is vocal about the volunteer experience -he’s given talks about it at his workplace too. “I talk about Rosies and how volunteering can make you feel -helping people always makes you feel better and gives you a better sense of accomplishment. We’re wired to be givers, not just takers.”
Colm’s advice to new volunteers was to make sure it was the right time in your life and to not overcommit yourself. He said it wasn’t always easy -there were many people with sad stories -but if you feel like it’s for you, don’t shy away from giving it a go.
Michelle said she took a lot of joy from outreach and was also inspired by other volunteers. “They’re from all walks of life -engineers, tradies, nurses, mums and retirees. They’re all different but they all give up their time and they’re drawn to it and that’s what keeps you going -it’s a part of who we are as a community.”
If you would like more information on volunteering or to join the Rosies family please click here.