Stepping up to the plate

In addition to Santa, organisers of the Te Anau Santa Parade are looking for more volunteers to help lend a hand.

Volunteers are as important as ever in Southland, but busier work schedules, greater commute times, and more mobility are some of the factors impacting services and events reliant on voluntary input in Southland and beyond.

Some special events groups and day-to-day organisations across Southland are struggling to find people to put their hands up to volunteer.

The decline reflects changing demographics seen across New Zealand and the world on how people are able to spend their free time and connect with their community. 

Eleven years ago Olive Tree Café owner Leona McCracken, sister Cheryl Flynn and friend Carmel McDowall started Te Anau's annual Santa Parade as a way to give families a community event to celebrate Christmas.

However Ms McCracken said this year's parade and follow-up carnival at the Lions' Park could be its last as the event was struggling to attract volunteers to join the committee and help out on the day. Without new members to join the committee, she said it was difficult to see how the annual event could sustain itself. It wasn't just the Santa Parade that depended on volunteers either, but many other local events as well.

"I know life gets busy, but think how busy these volunteers are. Some of these organisations are struggling and would love to have more volunteers on board."

Te Anau Events co-ordinators Shevaun Taberner and Sarah McDonald said in the six years the charitable trust has been set up to help run events such as the Te Anau Enduro, the Te Anau Manapouri Fishing Classic and the Te Anau Tartan Festival, they had seen a downward trend in people willing to step up and help out.

Across New Zealand more people are volunteering but are giving up less of their time. According to Statistics New Zealand, the total number of volunteers in non-profit groups increased by 21% between 2004 and 2013. However the total number of volunteers hours dropped from 42% from 270 million to 157 million hours.

Volunteering New Zealand recently identified potential barriers affecting the volunteering sector, such as mounting work pressures, limited time and increased compliance requirements, among others.

Kepler Challenge Mountain Run Trust trustee Jan Lieshout (née Brown) said they were grateful to count on a strong network of volunteers helping out each year, however more health and safety regulations did mean extra work for organisers behind the scenes. 

Venture Southland community development team leader Amy Bird said they had been researching the services volunteers provide in the Southland District and assessing how community-used facilities were managed.

She said both projects highlighted how important volunteers were to Southland. The connection volunteers had with their communities came through loud and clear, but longer working hours and changes in lifestyle were apparent strains on interested volunteers. A fragmented funding system also made it difficult for the groups themselves. 

While there were no clear solutions, Ms Bird said Venture Southland and the Southland District Council saw the importance of supporting volunteers where possible. This included yearly trainings on specific skill sets, like health and safety law or recruitment, and connecting people with similar volunteering interests. 

"One of the most important things we can do in a situation like this is to support the volunteers that we have. Those people who have got their hand up are out there, doing the meetings after work after a long day."

She said national organisations were also recognising the growing preference, especially among younger people, for time-limited, defined opportunities, instead of indefinite, ongoing ones.

"I think the challenge for volunteer organisations is understanding what different needs people have in volunteering and working with that structure."

Fire and Emergency New Zealand area commander for Southland Julian Tohiariki said changing demographics provided new opportunities to volunteer but also put pressure on certain rural areas. With a decrease in fires and an increase in medical callouts, they were seeing more interest in people interested in helping out with medical cases.

On the other hand, more young people in rural areas were leaving home to study at university or travel abroad and not returning to pick up the family farm. As a result very small rural towns were feeling the pressure of a limited volunteer force.

Currently they had around 700 volunteers across Southland helping out in sectors from firefighting, first response, to administrative support for brigades.

Ultimately, Miss McDonald and Mrs Taberner said people shouldn't wait to be asked to help out.

"Volunteers are still needed in the community. It's not only just for events, but for everything really."

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