Two western Sydney women have clocked up more than a quarter of a century each as volunteers for Blacktown Neighbour Aid, a program of CatholicCare, which provides support for elderly people living in their own homes.
Bernadette McKay and Rose Bililis have been visiting elderly clients for 26 years and 25 years respectively and say their volunteering has enriched their lives and provided good friendships.
“You start out as a volunteer with these people, but you often end up part of the family,” says Rose.
Bernadette says she grew up in the bush before moving to Sydney to take up nursing at St Vincent’s Hospital, and learned about the value of volunteering from her parents.
“I watched my parents do this sort of thing, with Meals on Wheels and Vinnies, and Mum did a lot for the Church. People used to volunteer a lot more back then.”
A story in the local paper calling for more volunteers for Blacktown Neighbour Aid caught Bernadette’s eye back in the early 1990’s, and, despite having retired early due to bulging discs in her spine, she though, “I could do that”.
Her first client was a woman with brain damage, who Bernadette used to visit at her home and accompany on outings. Later, there was a lady with whom Bernadette met twice a week for about 15 years until she went into a nursing home.
“I visited her in the nursing home, as a friend, not a volunteer, and once, when I was visiting her, she told me that I’d made a huge difference in her life, and that’s all I needed,” Bernadette says.
Bernadette also visited a woman with muscular dystrophy every week for 17-and-a-half-years.
“On Fridays we would meet for lunch and we did her shopping together. She needed help with everything, but she had the brightest spirit.
“Every Friday she made me feel so wonderful.
“It’s just been an absolute joy, the whole lot. I would do it again in a flash and I’d encourage anyone else to come and join us as a volunteer,” says Bernadette.
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Rose, who was born and raised in Greece, before migrating to Australia on her own as a 19-year-old, says she also took her inspiration to volunteer from her mother.
“My mother used to say that all of us belong under the same umbrella. It doesn’t matter about religion or nationality, we all bleed the same coloured blood and all of us have to help each other.”
Rose also started with Blacktown Neighbour Aid in 1992 after seeing a story in the paper calling for volunteers.
“We did training for a month and there’s been other training along the way. You’re always learning,” Rose said.
Her first client was a lady in Prospect whose poor mobility meant she rarely left the house.
“So, we started with me taking her on her walker out to the letter box, then around the garden, and then we’d have lunch or morning tea together,” she says.
A lady with cancer followed and then, for seven-and-a-half years, Rose visited an elderly woman with eye disease.
“I would take her out for appointments or we’d go for a picnic or coffee and spend time together.
“It’s basically a question of how can you meet your client’s needs.
“It makes me happy from the bottom of my heart to help someone and you learn a lot. It’s been enriching,” Rose said.
The women say that apart from the friends they have made with clients, they have also forged a strong friendship together through their time at Blacktown Neighbour Aid.
“We’re very good friends. We’ve supported each other through a lot,” Bernadette says.
Times have changed over the last quarter of a century and Bernadette and Rose say there are more policies and procedures in place now.
“But that can be a good thing too,” Bernadette says. “The main thing that hasn’t changed over the years is that there are still heaps of people in the community who are lonely and need help. They don’t always have family members to help.”
Blacktown Neighbour Aid Manager Deb Woolacott says long-standing volunteers like Bernadette and Rose are worth their weight in gold and more volunteers are needed all the time.
“We couldn’t serve as many clients as we do without the help of volunteers,” she says.
“We’ve been getting a big increase in referrals of clients through the federal government’s My Aged Care website particularly over the last year.
“They’re coming in thick and fast, and if it wasn’t for our volunteers, we’d have to knock them back.
“Our commitment is to keep people living their own homes and out of nursing homes and so the volunteers are crucial in helping to accompany them to medical appointments or to do the shopping or to assist with some other need.
“The more volunteers we get the more people we can help.”
CatholicCare Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains
Volunteers for Blacktown Neighbour Aid can commit to as little as an hour a week or a couple of hours a fortnight. They are provided with orientation and ongoing training and are reimbursed for their transport costs. For more information contact Deb Woolacott on (02) 8843 2541.
For more information about other CatholicCare services, visit www.ccss.org.au.