Reflections of a volunteer – the back room of the frontline

By Marianne Dwyer, 21 May 2021
Jesuit Refugee Service Australia (JRS) volunteer Marianne Dwyer (right) and fellow volunteer Emily. Image: JRS/Supplied


As I enter my seventh year as a Wednesday morning Foodbank volunteer with Jesuit Refugee Service Australia (JRS), I have reflected on how much my role has changed, particularly in the last year in response to COVID-19.

Pre-COVID, I would arrive at the centre and say “Hi” to everyone – people seeking asylum and refugees, my fellow volunteers and JRS staff. People would start arriving for Foodbank, casework, gardening, mums and bubs group, English classes, or maybe just to hangout and have a cup of tea in a safe and friendly space. Each week in Foodbank, our numbers were growing.

Foodbank was set up like a shop. As people would come and access it, you got to know the crowd favourites; it might be chickpeas, basmati rice, or tinned tomatoes, and the excitement of if there were onions or fresh cucumbers was always such a joy. I always loved the chat about what our friends might now cook that night for a family dinner, and to hear the review of how it went when they came back the next week.

COVID robbed us of “the chat”. Although we are entering a phase of tentative recovery, many challenges remain.

In 2021, unfortunately, the need for food and other necessities has not decreased, but as we learn to navigate our new home in Parramatta, we are starting to see more of the people we serve face-to-face.

COVID outbreaks have meant that things have been stop-start, but it has been a welcome change to see people’s smiling faces, to ask how they have coped in the last year, and to check what food items are needed or if a baby has grown into the next size of nappies.

Through this period of great uncertainty, the staff at JRS have been amazing. Everyone just jumps in and helps; packing, unpacking, sorting, carrying boxes – whatever needs to be done. To completely flip the support model in such a short time is an amazing feat, and to flip it again to a hybrid model of deliveries and face-to-face pick-up will take even more work. The team has done an awesome job setting up the infrastructure so that people can continue to be supported.

While my role has certainly changed from when I first walked through the door at JRS over seven years ago, I know I am making a difference and I’m glad that I can be there to respond as things shift and change.

COVID may have changed so much of the way we work, but it hasn’t changed the commitment and the heart of the volunteers and staff who continue to respond when people are most in need.

Consider volunteering for JRS

Demand for JRS’ services has increased by more than 300% and we are directly providing food to over 900 people per week with the help of amazing volunteers.

We have several volunteer roles involved in supporting our food bank and food deliveries.

Delivery Drivers:

If you have access to a vehicle, then one option is to help us as a volunteer delivery driver. The process involves collecting pre-packaged food parcels from Parramatta and a list of dropoff points for the day. Each driver will make approximately 15 deliveries per day in one area. Delivery days are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday during business hours. We have developed a protocol to ensure no contact is made with clients during delivery in order to reduce risk.

Food Collection:

A second option if you have access to a vehicle is food collection. Each week we are lucky enough to receive donated food from Foodbank NSW, but we need volunteers to collect it for us. Foodbank NSW Collection takes place every week on Monday and Wednesday. The food is collected from the Foodbank NSW warehouse and then delivered to our centre in Parramatta.

Food packers:

We also need assistance making up parcels of food to be delivered by our delivery drivers. The food packing takes place at our centre in Parramatta from Monday to Thursday, and our food packing volunteers usually do half a day, either 9am – 1pm, or 1pm – 5pm.

Dispatch Coordinators:

This involves being the communication point between drivers and clients. Our dispatch volunteers are given the list of deliveries for the day, the driver calls the dispatch volunteer when they have made a delivery and then the dispatch volunteer calls the client to let them know their food is outside for collection, and makes sure that they receive it.

Please note that all volunteers are required to have a Working With Children Check from Service NSW, and at the moment we are not able to accept volunteers in any of the ‘at risk’ categories – those who are over 70 or have a chronic illness.

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer or for further information, please contact Jane Turner on


Marianne Dwyer is a volunteer with Jesuit Refugee Service Australia.


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