Rotary district governor Harry Bolton.
Rotary district governor Harry Bolton.

We often hear that a community runs on the backs of its volunteers, but is this something we've come to take for granted? Where would we be without the likes of Lions, Rotary, CWA, Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the like, and is it possible to leverage this resource to a greater extent to improve the lives of us all?

This is something Harry Bolton has been pondering since taking on the mantle of Rotary's District 9460 governor. Now into the second half of his tenure, he's had ample opportunity to witness lots of community engagement between service organisations and those in need, particularly in the face of extreme conditions like drought and fire.

He has seen groups undertake huge coordinated efforts to deliver fodder, water, cash cards and other fundamentals to where it's most needed, as well as individuals.

"Half-a-million litres of bottled water has been donated through Peter Hay of Tenterfield Foodworks, for instance," Mr Bolton said.

"It's factors like that which point to the strength of a community."

Bottom-up approach

He feels that government-funded assistance programs, as well-intentioned as they may be, often struggle to reach the right people in a timely manner. Service groups can offer the flexibility and manpower to hit the ground running, and they're already on the ground.

The top-down approach which sees policy devised at government level being forced to fit the need could indeed be flipped, with more input from those organisations working in the community and much better equipped to identify needs and the best way to meet them.

They already have a mechanism to bring people together, through regular club meetings and community gatherings. Solely from a mental health perspective such mechanisms can be more beneficial than visiting mental health programs in providing an environment where people are comfortable to share any concerns.

When lives are so busy the weekly Rotary club dinner, for instance, can be an opportunity to catch up with the neighbour you haven't seen all week, Mr Bolton said.

He regrets the demise of family mealtimes so typical in his youth, with the family sat down at breakfast to plan their day and then came together again that evening to discuss how it all went. Communication is now more common by social media, and he fears this disconnection can be the cause of many social ills.

"Communication is really important," he said.

"(Through service groups) we get to sit down with people we don't often see and that's great from a mental health perspective. That really comes to the fore in drought and fire and other disasters."

These days people tend to look to the government to solve their problems. In the past it was more a case of 'the community needs it, so let's go and do it'.

Harry Bolton

In his capacity as district governor he said he hears conversations that demonstrate an element of trust in these group settings, and genuine conversations that a mental health agency worker may struggle to achieve.

"People can see that they're not alone in their issues, and may even be able to share solutions," Mr Bolton said.

"As a society we're not good at recognising the importance of groups to the fabric of our society. We've become so reliant on technology for communication that we're starting to lose the human aspect.

"We're losing the art of conservation but that can be brought back, built on the back of fellowship and support for the community."

He feels the more that people withdraw from volunteering -- be it from service groups, sporting groups, the Showground Trust or any volunteer organisation -- the more we lose the ability to keep the community tight.

"So much has been built on the back of individuals coming together as a group. In Tenterfield the hospital, parks, showground, our aged care facilities, Oracles of the Bush all came as a result of a group of people coming together with passion for a common goal, and look what they've achieved.

"These days people tend to look to the government to solve their problems. In the past it was more a case of 'the community needs it, so let's go and do it'."

New ways to assist

Mr Bolton was highly impressed with the way service groups responded to the emergency in Rappville, south of Casino, in the wake of October's bushfires. They moved in as soon as safe to do so, providing practical, timely assistance and continue to do so.

The groups involved continue to meet weekly in council chambers (pre-coronavirus, at least) in order to coordinate their efforts.

"The response wasn't driven by (Richmond Valley) Council or some other government body, although it certainly includes them," Mr Bolton said.

"It gained great traction, to the extent that I've asked them to put their operating model in writing to distribute to Rotary clubs."

Looking forward, Mr Bolton feels service organisations like Rotary could develop a broader role in disaster recovery, given their grassroots presence.

"Many farmers now have paddocks full of grass but no livestock, and with big bills to be paid. How can we help them?

"Longer term, can we influence future agricultural practices? What does farming look like in 20 years time?

"What lessons have we learned? How do we deal with climate cycles, particularly their extremes? Can we help transition those moving off-farm into the community?

"We have to evaluate the role of community groups looking towards the future."

Rotary is looking at making 'environment' its seventh arm of focus, along with peace and conflict prevention/resolution, disease prevention and treatment, water and sanitation, maternal and child health, basic education and literacy, and economic and community development.

If the move is adopted, the organisation will be taking on environment challenges at both the club and district level, extending beyond the physical environment to the impacts wrought on it by social environment, farming, business practices, manufacturing, etc.

"We have to make decisions about living in a society with regard to our resources, food, energy and health.

"These are big questions for individuals, for governments and for communities, and community organisations need to partner up with business chambers, farming associations and other industry leaders to address them.

"There are opportunities for services groups to take a lead and start making representation at all levels of government, starting as we are from the grassroots level and working up. Although service organisations are generally apolitical, we are a voice that should be heard.

"It makes sense to start where the pain is, rather than developing government policy and then trying to make it fit."