A Lifetime’s Service

by Suzanne Saunders

I grew up in Sunningdale, a lovely village in England, beside a mother who was a member of the WRVS, Women’s Royal Voluntary Service. I quickly learnt to bake cakes, make jam and knit etc for local village and church fetes. The local community spirit it great over there. I also joined the WRVS and began volunteering wherever the need was……including helping a “Golden Oldie” attend their veggie patch in a local allotment. Both my parents were passionate gardeners and every year we planted bags of bulbs for springtime flowering!

Suzanne at work in the garden ‘on her knees’

I headed to London to college to follow my passion… food! The WRVS put me in touch with a fellow student studying law who was an albino Nigerian man who needed assistance reading his books as his condition caused him to have poor eyesight. He was going to take his law degree back to Nigeria and use it to do good in his homeland. For 3 years, as well as completing my catering and hotel administration course, I “read law”! It gave me the first real insight into what it is like to be blessed with good health.

I worked several years at the Portman  Intercontinental Hotel in London, going home at weekends to assist mum and dad with the maintenance of the family home and garden and then an opportunity came to head to Sydney to be part of the opening team at the Intercontinental Hotel on Macquarie Street, Sydney. I left England one June, not knowing a sole here in Australia, with 2 suitcases, a tennis racket and 500 pounds….. I had assumed the weather would be gloriously warm butt was so cold and I arrived with the wrong set of clothes, having to spend as soon as I got here. I struggled to find cheap accommodation, eventually finding a room in Milson’s Point. The bonds for the rent, gas and electricity outweighed my wage as a waitress and I quickly ran out of money. The hotel allowed us to eat in the staff canteen so if I wanted a hot meal on my days off I had to walk over the Harbour Bridge to have one and then walk home again. I had never really before experienced the inability to pay for what I wanted or needed.

I worked hard, going from waitress, to restaurant supervisor, then moved to accounts, finally finishing up as the Credit Manager. By now married and expecting first child. I left on maternity leave and was fortunate in the early years that I did not have to work. With no immediate family in Australia, I looked for “something constructive” I could do with my newborn son as there was no “babysitting” options. There were ads in the local newspaper for Hillview Community Centre and ECG. “We” joined both. As a volunteer driver for Hillview, Stewart and I would pick up clients for medical appointments and he gurgled to them from the back seat, I drove for 10 years with Hillview.

With ECG I was welcomed in by Anne, Kathleen and Lyndall. It was quite a different organization then. There were some clients I would visit on my own every month, and sometimes it was not only gardening I did. It could be  a garage full of “clutter” and I would toss as the seated client directed. One spinster lady I visited had no local family or friends and it became more of a mentally supportive role, as rather than having a tidy garden she would prefer I sat next to her looking at photos of her famous tennis playing brother who by then had a tournament named after him! But there were also teams going to gardens, and I joined the “Thursday” team…….. which is still my team but the members have changed! All this time Stewart came with me, plus his playpen, toys, food etc. He happily “chatted” to the client while I worked in the garden and when it was time for a midday nap, (his, not mine), we headed home. Both the clients and my team mates were so supportive of this arrangement.

The same eventually occurred when my daughter arrived, and then they were both at school so I became more available. I gave time to the schools and my church.  I was sponsored by Bruce Taylor to become a Justice of the Peace and have supported both ECG clients and others, still now. I transported the propagated plants to stalls and on an ECG open day at Judith (Blazeys?) home in Hornsby, had a stall of jams etc for sale and chatted to Simon (Marney?) on the radio to promote ECG.

Kathleen was a great supporter and wise counsellor, and a great advocate on getting on your knees to garden, I remember her saying “you cannot see a weed standing up!”

When we got our rosters there was often a comment “GMT” in the corner…… “Great morning tea”. Bruce in St Ives would make us fresh date scones with diabetic jam and cream every time and that guaranteed a good turnout of volunteers!

We were also joined once by a student of horticulture who “knew everything” and gave a severe haircut to a favourite shrub to the clients horror, with the explanation that in 5 years it will look magnificent, not fully understanding that 5 years for some of our clients is a VERY long time to wait and they may never actually see it then.

In 2010 I was honoured with Citizen of the Year by KRG Council……… for 20 years of volunteering service to ECG and others, and a highlight was being able to talk to several thousand at the West Pymble Park about the benefits of volunteering and helping others, and especially saying you don’t have to wait to be retired before you can begin.

Life changes, and I found myself having to go back to work to pay my bills….. I took 3 part time jobs, but did not forget I needed to keep Thursday free! Again, as a disability support worker with Cerebral Palsy I appreciated the ability to get out into the fresh air and be active. I also still work at the GP practice and as a Home Support Assessor with My Aged Care. Ironically, I am now one of “those people” who send the referrals for a client to have ECG!!!

I aim now to join the Thursday team once a month, shifts permitting. Volunteering can only offer rewards, the ability to gain knowledge and friendship from those around you, the mental support of a team who has known you for many years when things are tough, the ability to work as a team towards a specific objective, to be able to work off those calories from the morning teas …. and the driving force to continue it is the pleasure of hearing a “thank you” from the client for a job well done! While I am fit and able I will continue to garden with ECG………………..