Lifelong Volunteering with Red Cross

What if volunteering with a chosen organisation lasts the best part of your lifetime?
What if unknowingly this volunteering becomes your calling, enriching your life with meaning, people and events?

Over sixty years ago a young schoolgirl in Melbourne volunteered with the Red Cross. Her commitment to Red Cross continues to this day. Recently she achieved the position of Victorian Divisional Advisory Board Chairman of the Australian Red Cross – the first woman ever to do so. This is the amazing story of the lifelong commitment to volunteering of Anne Macarthur OAM.

Anne shared with me she grew on a sheep farm in an isolated area of New South Wales in the 1940s. There wasn’t even a school for her to go to. She spent most of her early life out in the paddocks working with her father and brothers and also looking after the farm animals. From an early age she developed a sense of responsibility.

“Being in a remote part of the country you learn to be independent because you had to provide virtually everything for your own life,” said Anne.

Settling into the city and a new life at school

Anne was just 10 years of age when she arrived at her all girls’ boarding school in Melbourne carrying a brown leather suitcase and armed with enthusiasm for her new school. After a decade of social isolation living in country New South Wales on the family’s property, she was really looking forward to sharing the company of the other students. It was to be a momentous change. She settled in but not being able to go home for 3 months at a time proved incredibly challenging for her.

At home she was also used to conducting her own research, looking up information from books. Now there was the noise of other people in the unfamiliar setting of a classroom, the task of copying notes from a blackboard and dealing with a set timetable to contend with. That first year she suffered bouts of homesickness for her family and the animals.

“We were brought up that you didn’t eat your breakfast until you had fed the animals particularly the horses. My horse was called Trixie and we would go out into a paddock of around 1000 acres, just the two of us, to check the fences, telephone line or for missing animals. I was sent out to do these duties from a very young age,” said Anne.

School volunteering activities

As part of the school program, Anne was offered a choice of organisations to join for volunteering activities. Immediately, she chose Junior Red Cross. She knew from her mother, who had volunteered for the Red Cross during WWII, the wonderful work performed by the organisation. She couldn’t wait to start her volunteer work. One of her activities was to visit the children’s ward at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne after school and help serve the children with their evening meal.

“What struck me was the starkness of the ward, the lack of fun, the strict routine. It made me feel lucky that I was well,” recalled Anne.

The image of this austerity played on her mind, making her wish to continue volunteering in order to help others. Her volunteering work also involved taking part in fundraising activities with stalls at the school and penny drives. She also learnt basic First Aid.

“All these activities were a small part of my life as a young woman yet they were to be a foundation for my future life with Red Cross,” said Anne.

Married and back to country life

We are jumping 10 years now. Anne had left school and was living in Gippsland, Victoria having married a farmer. As we all know, a fact of life in the Australian countryside is bush fires. In 1965 there were disastrous bush fires in the mountains. Anne remembers Red Cross arriving at her local little town of Lindenow with a ‘package post’ that contained all the needs for caring for the firefighters. Red Cross urgently called for volunteers from the local community but unfortunately she wasn’t to be one of them.

“I was heavily pregnant at the time with my third child. However, I was putting out spot fires on our property during that terrible period. Soon after, a Red Cross branch was formed at Lindenow and I was one of its first members,” said Anne.

Hosting fundraisers in her own home and garden

As part of her volunteering with Red Cross, Anne catered for fundraisers in her own home and garden near Lindenow. Invitations were sent to people from surrounding areas. They always looked forward to these social occasions and were very generous in their contributions to the Red Cross cause. To create interest, of one of these fundraisers was on a Scottish theme.

“Having agonized that the weather would be kind on the day, we hosted an outside garden luncheon complete with a bagpiper and we’d also asked everyone to wear a touch of tartan,” reminisced Anne who told me that not all went to plan.

On the menu was the Scottish dish, Haggis but it turned out to be a culinary disaster. Apparently, the sheep slaughtered to make the Haggis, had been eating green grass instead of the normal pasture. Its stomach was green which had had a huge effect on the appearance of the dish making it look unpalatable.

“Later in kitchen away from public view, we cut it into sections and my six-foot tall son carried it out on a platter. He had to carefully hold it very high so it couldn’t be seen! However, people enjoyed eating it and we raised a substantial amount of money for Red Cross!” laughed Anne.

Living in the 70s and writing for Red Cross

Over a ten-year period in the 1970s, another of her duties was as volunteer publicity officer for East Gippsland Red Cross. She regularly wrote articles for the local press about Red Cross’ activities in the area but the work involved a lot of checking of titles.

“We had a particularly strict editor of whom I was terrified as he insisted that every person had a title. It wasn’t easy because some of the older women were accustomed to going under their husband’s Christian names and many of us, including myself, had become used to using a modern informal approach,” said Anne.

Apparently, even in the ‘with-it’ 70s it was still socially unacceptable for a married woman to use her Christian name in print.

“It seemed strange to me at the time that we women volunteers worked together to achieve so much yet when it came to appearing in print, some felt bound to use their husband’s names as their title and this was very important to them,” said Anne.

Red Cross calling around the farms (grandchildren as well)
According to Anne, calling and collecting around the farms on behalf of Red Cross is a time consuming activity only because most people in the country are ready
for a chat and a general catch up.

“We were meant to collect in March and people would often tell me I was running late, that they’d been waiting for me to come and they had the money set aside stuck on the fridge door!”

Country people she told me, know the invaluable work performed by Red Cross and so are very generous to support its cause as many have also experienced firsthand the benefits of Red Cross. Driving around the farms for years in an old pale blue vintage 70s car, Anne was instantly recognizable.

“I had the same car for 30 years! People had problems recognizing me when I changed cars!” she joked.

Two decades later her granddaughter Emily often accompanied Anne on her Red Cross volunteering rounds. “We’d collect money for the annual March appeal. We’d visit many homes on the farms and in the local town. My memory is of her holding the Red Cross calling bag up right in front of her face with a beautiful smile which people had trouble resisting,” said Anne.

Volunteering in emergency conditions during Black Saturday

Black Saturday stands out in Anne’s memory of her emergency services volunteering. She recalled how the Red Cross assisted victims so efficiently at the time of that horrific event. As a volunteer her role was to register people who had fled their homes that had been burnt to the ground. Some of them had tragically lost family members in the 2009 bushfire.

“It was very important how we volunteers talked to those people who were often in distress or shock. Our Red Cross personal support training was of enormous help in providing comfort, promoting a sense of confidence while at the same time we quietly recorded important information about all individuals’ whereabouts,” said Anne.

Confronting images and emotional sessions with victims remain in her mind still from that horrific day. One in particular was of a woman who shared the details of her flight from tragedy.

“She said to me ‘Anne, I thought bugger the possessions, I’ll just take the cat!’ And that was what she did. For me, as a volunteer for the Red Cross, it painted a picture of what she experienced and what truly mattered to her.”

“As volunteers at the time we couldn’t think of ourselves, we didn’t have time. We were dealing with people who had been through extreme trauma, who were in extreme shock, and didn’t know where to turn for help. Luckily we were provided with debriefing by the Red Cross counsellors which was of enormous benefit.”

Volunteer and Chairman – six decades of volunteering

Today at over seventy, Anne keeps fit by swimming a kilometre before breakfast several mornings per week.  Anne is still an active member of the Lindenow branch in the East Gippsland region of the Red Cross where she is a volunteer office bearer, involved in fundraising and emergency services work.

In 2014 she was elected to the position of Chairman of the Red Cross of Victoria and to be on the national Australian Red Cross board. She is the first female Chairman in the history of Red Cross in Victoria, in operation for over 100 years.

Looking back now over the past six decades of volunteering for Red Cross she feels fortunate to have had opportunity to follow in her mother’s footsteps to continue working for an organisation she is passionate about.

“What stands out for me are the close friendships formed when you are working with likeminded people, fellow volunteers, and paid Red Cross Staff, working towards a better world. I’ve got more out of volunteering for Red Cross than I’ve ever put in!”

 by Lesley Sharon Rosenthal volunteer writer for Volunteering Victoria

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