Work Experience 30: Event/Volunteer Coordinator
When I was first invited to join the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter Service in Lismore for work experience I had visions of flying in a chopper for the first time in my life and maybe seeing some training drills. I would’ve put my hand up to be winched to safety in a rescue drill if they needed someone for sure. Obviously not realistically, but wouldn’t that have been an unforgettable experience! One of the amazing helicopters costs a staggering $18M. This includes the $3M needed to transform it into a purpose-built rescue helicopter and flying ambulance. For every minute that it’s in the air, the helicopter uses 6 litres of fuel. Air crew teams consisting of pilot, crew person, doctor and paramedic are either on a job or on standby at the base 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, ready to assist when the need arises. With ‘air crew’ work experience understandably out of the picture, I was still very excited about working with the marketing and events team, who do such important work to help keep the WLRHS operating.
What did I do?
The Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter Service is a non-profit organisation which has been operating since 1982. Since that time, nobody has ever had to pay for being assisted by the Rescue Helicopter. Although 70% of their expenses are government funded, the other 30% needs to be raised through donations, sponsorship and fundraising. I worked with the marketing and events team for one of their biggest fundraising events of the year, the Ballina to Byron Bay Coastal Charity Walk, and for a couple of days leading up to it.
When I first arrived at the WLRHS Headquarters in Lismore, I was introduced to the team and had a quick tour around the base. Aside from a medical supplies room, which is essential to have on-site as the helicopter always needs to be fully stocked for any medical emergencies, the facility was quite similar to a fire station. There was an ops room which is at the heart of the facility and is filled with screens and maps, a storage room containing the crew’s helmets and uniforms all ready to be thrown on in an emergency situation, and inside the hangar a lot of other specialised equipment such as water rescue gear that may be required in different rescue situations. Missing on my tour this time around was the helicopter, which was out on a job.
After having a good look around, I headed off with Volunteer Coordinator Mel to the Rescue Helicopter’s Lismore Op Shop, which is one of 7 stores that Mel helps to manage.
The Op Shops generate funds through donations of second-hand clothing, accessories and other small items which are sorted, ironed, priced, displayed for sale and sold by a very dedicated group of volunteers. I loved the way that Mel bounded in and greeted all of the volunteers individually with a smile. She even got a few hugs. This was my kind of place! After introducing me to the ladies, Mel left us to it so she could work through a long list of jobs she needed to do before Sunday’s Charity Walk. The volunteers were wearing red while I was in grey, so my first job was to find something red on the rack to wear. It’s always nice to look the part. Next I was asked to put my height to good use by dressing the display manequins in new outfits. This was quite a fun job as I had the chance to rummage through the racks and drawers. Check out the ‘before’ and ‘afters’ below.
There was a steady stream of customers through the op shop doors throughout the morning, and many purchases made which was great. After a coffee break, a group crossword with the ladies and a bit of ironing, my couple of hours were up. I left the red shirt (although on reflection should’ve bought it – it was only a couple of bucks!), paid $1 for a cute little bag for my daughter that had been knitted and donated by a local granny, said my good-byes to the lovely volunteers and hit the road with WLRHS Marketing Manager Zeke.
The plan for the afternoon was to drive to Mullumbimby Primary School, where the students would be treated to a visit by the Rescue Helicopter and its crew. As well as the excitement that comes with seeing (and hearing) a helicopter land on their school oval, students would have the opportunity to learn about the service and its role within community. Schools can nominate themselves for a landing, but only a few lucky schools are chosen each year. Unfortunately though, things don’t always go to plan. The top priority of the Rescue Helicopter is to attend emergency situations, and had been called out that afternoon to transport a critical patient to hospital. Our fingers were crossed that it’d be back in time, but unfortunately that wasn’t to be. You can imagine the disappointment of the students and staff, but thankfully Zeke had a Plan B up his sleeve. He talked to the students in the school hall about the role of the WLRHS within their community, special features of the rescue helicopter and examples of rescues they’d performed. He had photos and video to share, as well as a book he gifted to the school and stickers for each of the students. The talk itself was great, but is obviously not the same as having the helicopter landing on the oval. Luckily for the school community, Zeke promised that they would reschedule the helicopter visit for later in the year. Considering I was looking forward to seeing the landing myself…I might have to go back to see that!
Back at the Lismore Headquarters, I had the opportunity to have a good look at the rescue helicopter which was back in the hangar. A couple of engineers were tinkering on it but were happy for me to hop in and sit in the pilot’s seat. How cool is that! I’d never been in a helicopter before, and even though it was on the ground and wasn’t going anywhere I still found it pretty exciting (it doesn’t take much!). What an amazing machine.
All hands were on deck on Saturday, in preparation for Sunday’s Coastal Charity Walk fundraising event. Participants could choose from three different distances, starting in Ballina and finishing at Lennox Head (13km), Broken Head (25km) or Byron Bay (37km). In total, 1700 people had signed up for the walk. My first job of the day was to walk 13km of the route from Ballina to Lennox Head with Amber and volunteer Beryl. The day before, signs had been erected along the path directing walkers on where to go, and our job was to walk this section of the track to check that the signage was adequate and intact. We stopped a few times along the way to put up extra directional signs, but mostly just had the opportunity to walk and enjoy this stunning stretch of the coastline.
It was a beautiful morning and I took plenty of photos along the way. I felt really lucky that this was a part of my work experience job – long walks, beautiful scenery and the sounds and smells of the beach are a few of my favourite things, so it was a real treat for me. I actually would’ve loved to continue walking on, but alas there was more work to be done.
After a tasty lunch at the Ballina Surf Club, Amber and I said goodbye to Beryl and drove back to Mel’s house where we were handed knives, chopping boards and boxes of oranges to cut into quarters. A number of food and refreshment stations were to be dotted along the course for the walkers and oranges are a proven favourite. We had a couple of other little jobs to do at Mel’s before it was time for me to head home and rest up. Sunday was going to be huge.
My alarm went off at 4am on Sunday morning, and I was on the road at 4.30am for the 30 minute drive to Missingham Park in Ballina. It was still dark (and chilly) when I arrived, and many of the volunteers were already busy in the Registration Tent sorting envelopes containing number bibs for the walkers. Beryl and I worked together to deliver number bibs to individuals and teams once the first walkers started trickling in. There were a number of starting waves, and I was whisked off by event coordinator Kellie to be the official horn blower to start the last remaining waves. Another exciting job for me! (I told you it doesn’t take much.)
Once the last of the walkers set off it was time for an egg and bacon roll from the cheerful BBQ volunteers and a much-needed cup of coffee. On event day, Mel’s main role as Volunteer Coordinator is to check up on all of her volunteers at their stations and make sure they feel appreciated – because they very much are! The commitment and dedication of the WLRHS volunteers doesn’t go unnoticed, and the event literally couldn’t run without them. Mel and I stopped at a bakery in Ballina to pick up a couple of trays of freshly made sandwiches which she’d pre-ordered. Throughout the morning we stopped at each of the volunteer points along the course, chatting briefly with volunteers and delivering sandwiches. It was great to see so many happy faces, volunteers and walkers alike.
Due to the length of the course, and the fact that the access roads to some of the volunteer stations were long and slow going (we had to drive along one particularly muddy road in the rain) it took us a few hours to cover the entire course.
Once we’d made it all the way up to Byron Bay to deliver sandwiches at the finish line, Mel and I drove back to the 25km checkpoint at Broken Head just as the first of the walkers trickled through. Many walkers had planned to finish the event here, and as such snacks, drinks and even entertainment were provided. I found myself scooping macadamia nuts into little paper bags with a lovely volunteer, while another lady beside us handed out handfuls of lollies (she was pretty popular!).
The oranges we’d cut the day before were being devoured which was great to see. There was even a podiatrist on hand to treat people’s aching feet. We stayed until the last of the walkers passed through, many of whom were continuing on to Byron Bay. As busses began to shuttle people back to Ballina, we began clearing up rubbish and packing all of the gear into the truck. Many hands makes light work as my mum would always say. I hitched a ride back to Ballina to get my car then drove back up to Byron Bay to see in some of the walkers. It was about 3.30pm and I have to admit the early start was beginning to catch up on me, but I couldn’t have asked for a better place to hang out for a while. It was lovely to stand on the sand and encourage people to walk the last few meters to the finish line. Walking 37km along beaches, boardwalks and bush trails in one day is a huge achievement!
Just before 5pm, and as the light was starting to fade, the last of the walkers were cheered across the finish line. Most of the WLRHS staff were there to help pack up, and Zeke made a short speech to thank everyone for all the work they put in to making such a fantastic and successful event. What a brilliant day. What a brilliant service the Rescue Helicopters provide. And what a good night’s sleep I had that night!
What did I learn?
My work experience at the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter Service was varied over the course of three days, and I found it so valuable to work with and talk to a number of team members from the marketing and events crew over that time. It gave me a great overview of how a non-profit organisation like WLSRHS operates, as well as an understanding of the work that goes on behind the scenes to coordinate events and raise funds to keep such a vital service going.
I was so impressed not only by the well-organised staff, but also by the incredible and dedicated volunteers that offer their time to work in Op Shops or help to ensure that fundraising events like the Coastal Charity Walk run smoothly each year.