Volunteering to make a real difference

How would you feel about hiring a person who'd previously been jailed for fraud? Or someone who had served a sentence for an assault-based crime?

Dr Catriona Wallace, the owner of three Sydney businesses, says that, given the right circumstances, it's a great idea.

"Interestingly enough, women who've committed fraud make really good employees because they're normally extremely clever and they often come from a white-collar background, so they've worked before in a business environment," Wallace says.

She employs six former inmates of the Dillwynia Correctional Centre in her businesses (a management-consultancy firm, a market-research company and a window-cleaning firm).

"And because they've learnt their lesson . . . they're very grateful. They work absolutely extremely hard to make up [for what they've done], to constantly demonstrate that they're worthy of having a job."

A mother of five who has founded a number of philanthropic foundations – including Indigo Express, which funds literacy programs for indigenous Australians – Wallace also pays mentoring visits to the women at Dillwynia Correctional Centre, an all-female prison.

It was her parents, she says, who fostered the idea that giving opportunities – rather than just money – to the underprivileged and the disadvantaged is a personal responsibility. This belief system was also enhanced by her experience as a police officer many years ago.

"I spent a lot of time arresting women and locking them up," Wallace, 47, says. "Ninety-nine per cent of them had suffered greatly, and as a result had made some pretty poor choices that landed them in prison."

Sharon*, a former Dillwynia inmate and a current employee of Wallace's, can attest to that. "Because I have no resources and had no financial support, you know, it was quite scary to think that I had to go somewhere and start with nothing; I had not a cent when I walked out [of prison]," she says. "There's that feeling that there are few people out there that will give people a second chance . . . [And] if you're not given an opportunity to rebuild your life, then you're pushing people back into crime. [My job] is the one area that is fairly solid in my life. So you know, it's a foundation, and without that foundation, where would I be? I don't know. A wreck. I'd be right back [in prison]."

Wallace is a welcome contrast to what we've been hearing recently about Australia's philanthropic slump. Last year, prompted by the news that Australia's most generous philanthropist isn't even Australian but an Irish-American who doesn't live here, Daniel Petre (of the Petre Foundation) called our wealthy "morally bankrupt".

At the same time, the Australian Taxation Office announced that, for the first time in a decade, there had been a decline in tax-deductible giving. But Wallace is far from the only philanthropist in Australia who's bucking the trend and putting their money where their mouth is. Stephen Blanks of SBA Lawyers, a firm in Rozelle, spends about 30 per cent of his work week on pro-bono matters, particularly those involving asylum seekers who have been denied refugee status because they have incorrectly been deemed a threat to national security.

Blanks has, on average, six ongoing matters before the courts at any one time; each could cost a paying client up to $10,000.

He also lobbies against policy change that he believes limits civil rights. Most recently, Blanks challenged the legitimacy of the 35-day limit that refugees who have been denied visas previously were given to appeal their case.

"There are a very limited number of lawyers prepared to act in these cases, and it takes more than 35 days to apply to the court for judicial review," he says.

The Federal Court agreed, and people who have failed refugee assessments now have an unlimited amount of time in which to appeal their case. Blanks's passion for helping refugees stems from his parents' experience. His mother, Christine, and his late father, Fred, both Jewish, fled persecution in Germany and Austria for Australia in 1939.

"Look, I think their experience was mixed [on their arrival]," Blanks says. "Some Australians were sympathetic, others were hostile to foreigners. I then studied the conditions in those countries [Germany and Austria] which led to what happened to them. How does a civilised country turn a section of the community into one that can be treated in that way? And I think that when you look at that aspect of it, that's what is important in Australia's context now."

He points, specifically, to the recent federal government announcement that, from August 12 onwards, all refugees who arrive here are prohibited from working for five years.

"The reasoning is to provide a disincentive for people to get on boats. [But] that has the great danger of creating a group of people who will be despised by the Australian community and keep them in poverty. And it's those sorts of conditions which can lead to more serious abuses."

Another often neglected, and sometimes feared, group is those who reside in palliative care units.

But a group of volunteers at the Sacred Heart Hospice, a unit of St Vincent's Hospital, helps change this on a daily basis.

Vicki Krenn, a 69-year-old grandmother, is one of them. For the past 13 years, Krenn has spent two or three days a week with many of the hospice's residents.

"I remember once, the [volunteer] co-ordinator came in and said, 'Look, Mrs so-and-so's family are away, they're not going to make it in time [to see her pass], they don't want her to be on her own, so can you sit with her? That was a hard one. But I really love it. You can just make a small difference in somebody's life and I do feel good about it."

The volunteer co-ordinator at St Vincent's Hospital, Christine Harvey, says the impact the volunteers have on the patients takes her breath away.

"With a lot of patients, it's wonderful, but there's just a constant flow of social workers, pastoral care workers, medical professionals and nurses coming in to see them. It's all focused on the illness, because it's all revolved around medication. Yet the volunteers go in extending their hand, and their willingness to listen. Small things make such a difference. Even something we take for granted, like holding somebody's hand."

Krenn says she's drawn to her work because of personal experience. After she turned five, her mother had five children, all of whom died after their birth. "So, maybe, I learnt about death from quite an early age," Krenn says. "I cried and cried and felt helpless."

It's this sort of empathy for others, which often only comes with personal experience, that will herald in a brave new world of more active philanthropy here, Wallace says.

"I've taken groups of people out to the [Dillwynia] prison, a lot of self-employed women, just to give them the experience . . .

To go in and see photos of [the prisoners'] children stuck to the walls of the prison cells, that normally rips people's hearts out. They'll sit down and talk to a woman [and realise], 'Oh, you're just a normal person. You've made a bad choice.' They'll go, 'If I had that background, I reckon I'd be in the exact position.'

"These are just girls interrupted. That's all they are."

* Not her real name.

The story Volunteering to make a real difference first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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