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Volunteering and community connection in the Covid-19 era

Long-time Wairarapa volunteer Sandra Debney reflects during National Volunteer Week on community spirit in the Covid-19 era and the potential for a greater emphasis on volunteering.


"Sometimes I get carried away with volunteering," says Sandra Debney who's been volunteering for the Heart Foundation for 15 years. "My husband says he keeps a photo of me on the fridge because we're like ships in the night, passing one another."

Sandra and her husband Peter are both stalwart volunteers for the Heart Foundation in Wairarapa. Sandra's taken on various roles over the years – organising book sales, serving on the local Heart Foundation committee, helping out at talks, running information stalls and supporting heart health events.

"We're a volunteering family around here," Sandra says. Her husband Peter was the chair of Wairarapa Heart Foundation for many years. He's also a JP and a rugby referee. Sandra is the Chair of Friends of Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History as well as helping out with a number of causes. 

The Heart Foundation is highlighting the contribution of volunteers like Sandra and Peter Debney during National Volunteer Week from 21 to 27 June.

Thousands of volunteers around the country help raise vital funds for life-saving research and specialist training in cardiology, promote awareness at community-level on how to prevent heart disease and help provide community support to people living with heart disease.

Heart Health Advocate for Wairarapa, Kit Cohr, says she’s greatly appreciative of the contribution of Sandra and all her volunteers locally. "Sandra is so full of energy in everything she does. And she really does everything – she's such a motivated, busy person and a huge 'giver' of her time. And she does it with such positivity and liveliness that it’s contagious," she says.

Sandra volunteers because "it's important to be part of the community and help where you can". The Heart Foundation is a "very worthwhile cause – heart disease is the biggest killer of people in New Zealand. It's important to raise awareness." She likes learning new things and interacting with people.

Despite huge improvements in deaths from heart disease since the Heart Foundation begun more than 50 years ago, heart disease remains New Zealand’s single biggest killer. Around 170,000 New Zealanders are living with heart disease.

Although the Heart Foundation still has at least 20-30 regular volunteers in the Wairarapa, Sandra is sad to see that the volunteering pool is getting older. Life is so fast-paced for younger people, it makes it difficult for them to volunteer, she says.

However, Sandra sees hope for volunteering in a post-Covid future and thinks a newly-felt sense of community will change priorities. "Lockdown seemed to cause people to re-evaluate their lives. There was a very strong community feeling – neighbours being extra friendly, talking across driveways and fences," she says. 

Sandra’s optimism for more young people signing up to be volunteers is borne out by recent research by the British Heart Foundation which found that, contrary to the stereotype of volunteers likely to be elderly, millennials in the UK were more interested in volunteering than any other generation.

Encouraging other people about the value of volunteering is something Sandra is keen to do. In her paid work life Sandra was a teacher and then an Associate Principal. Her biggest skill, she thinks, is being able to talk to a huge range of people. "I can talk people into a lot of things," she says.

A decade-and-a-half of volunteering "has meant that I know the signs of a heart attack off by heart!" Sandra says. That knowledge came to the fore a couple of years ago when she and a fellow volunteer and friend were sorting books in Masterton for a fundraising sale and she noticed him turn grey and sweaty. She kept asking him whether he was all right, but her friend just wanted to go home. Sandra insisted on taking him to A&E. Luckily the book storage building was in the hospital grounds, so she was able to get help for her friend quickly.

He survived the heart attack. Afterwards he rang to thank Sandra and said that she'd probably saved his life. "All I did was stop him going home," she says modestly. "If he'd gone home, he would have been in a bad way. He's fine now." 

Dr Gerry Devlin, the Heart Foundation's Medical Director issued a heartfelt thanks to volunteers around the country, saying their efforts were truly life-saving. The Heart Foundation is New Zealand's leading independent funder of heart research. Volunteers have helped fund research and training worth more than $74 million.

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