Why you can’t have community without compassion
For Judith James, a longtime disability advocate and the recipient of the Lifetime Contribution to Volunteering Award at this year’s Queensland Volunteering Awards, helping other people is its own reward.
I was 52 years old, living on a country property in Chinchilla, caring for family members and running my own textile design business when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1992.
Where I come from, you have to stick together and support each other. Growing up in the bush, I was always the first one to stick up my hand when somebody needed something. I think that comes from my parents — they were very community-minded people.
But when I was diagnosed with MS, there was very little help at hand. Nothing was known about it. I found there was little or no information available for those with MS in my area. I had to move into disabled-access housing in Toowoomba.
I found there was little or no information available for those with MS in my area.
The local occupational therapist found a few other people with the same disorder, and she suggested we get together and have a meeting. There were 14 of us at that first meeting, and I realised that we could achieve quite a bit if we just formalised the structure, so we established the Toowoomba MS Support Service — and the more we engaged with people in the community with MS, the more volunteers we got. I’ve always found that volunteering is contagious.
There was a lot that needed to be done. I realised there was an immediate need for an MS Support newsletter to go out to people in the country, with information about everything local. Where do you park if you come into Toowoomba for treatment? Where are the disabled access toilets? Which places to eat are accessible for wheelchairs? This was before a lot of people had the internet, of course, but even now, most country people don’t have NBN or mobile phone coverage. They receive their news by letter or landline.
I found that I was talking to a lot of newly diagnosed people, telling them that I knew what they were going through, because I’d been through it. At that stage, I decided I needed to know more about what I was doing, so I went and became a trained counsellor. I make it my business to learn things.
When people come into town for treatment here, they often can’t find anywhere to stay that’s accessible if they’re in a wheelchair. Most of the pubs and places like that aren’t accessible. I often take them in and give them bed and breakfast at my house, because it’s designed for disabled access. I don’t really call that volunteering — it’s just a bit of help. And it means I get to meet a whole new group of people, not just the one person with a neurological condition, because their family usually comes with them.
I’m not one of those people whose glass is always half empty, or even half full. As far as I’m concerned, my glass is always full. I’ve met so many wonderful people — young people, older people, people from all walks of life — and to me, that’s one of the best things about volunteering. It’s all about the people you meet. All you’ve got to do is put your hand out and offer it to somebody who needs it and you’ve made another friend.
All you’ve got to do is put your hand out and offer it to somebody who needs it and you’ve made another friend.
Of course, I do get frustrated sometimes. The things that get up my nose are governmental issues — when they’re not resolved, they can impinge on the lives of disabled people who are doing it tough, particularly out in the bush where they don’t have access to services. A lot of my volunteering is advocacy work, to give our politicians and moneyed people a good bit of stick.
I’ve spent a lot of time battling with government departments and people who sit in little concrete boxes in cities who have got no idea about what country people have to go through. I’ll say, “Listen, this is not working. What are you doing? Get off your bums and make these people’s lives a bit better.”
I’m not scared to call people out. When you’re 80 years old, you’re not scared of anybody. I had some verbal fisticuffs recently with a lady in Canberra. She said, “You just have to tell this person out in the bush that they can go in and get their GP to sign this form.” And I said, “Lady, the nearest GP is 600 kilometres away. What are you talking about?” She just had no idea.
I’ve been fortunate enough to win some awards, but I really just think of them as things to whack the governmental people with. It’s nice to be acknowledged, but that’s not what volunteering is about. If I get awards, they’re to be used on other people’s behalf, so the people in Canberra or wherever else think, “Oh, this old sheila, she’s not just all mouth, she actually knows what she’s talking about.”
I’m supposed to be retiring this year, but I still get calls from people who need counselling. I get calls from old friends when they’re not happy with their treatment and so on. So there’s really no end to it. When you’re a volunteer, you’re a volunteer for life, I think. I don’t really know how to explain it. I just see a need, and I feel obliged to get in and fill that need if I can.
If you’re an older person, if you’re looking for some direction in your life or some company or just something to help pass the time, I think volunteering is the best thing you can do. You’ve got a lifetime of experience in your particular field — don’t be afraid to get out there and share it with somebody.
Give somebody else a hand up. That’s all it amounts to, really.