Engaging the Australian Community

Community engagement, while only one of three points in PALMS mission statement, does make the other two possible and so accounts for more than half of PALMS endeavours. To offer best practice in global volunteering it is essential to both recruit appropriate volunteers and develop the necessary income to support their placement. Good community education through broad networks is required, especially as we detach from Government funding.

PALMS Mission statement says it thus :

To engage Australian communities and partner communities through Global Mission volunteers so that each increases their awareness and enthusiasm to encourage just, sustainable, interdependent and peaceful development.

In the 2004-05 financial year we realized so many possibilities of this aspect of PALMS Mission. Coordinators Clare Gates (Recruitment and Formation), John Dacey (Community Education) and Karina Tanos (Network Development) have provided a very solid foundation for our ongoing work.

Information Sessions, selecting and interviewing volunteers, the Orientation Course and community education in general helps PALMS to ensure that the volunteers we place give requesting communities the best opportunity to achieve the development sought by their people. As a necessary adjunct we offer those who cannot take up an overseas assignment an opportunity, beyond sending money and handouts, for the inter-community, cross-cultural relationships and dialogue that must underpin authentic global mission.

Recruitment has continued to achieve beyond targets in most occupational groups. This became a problem early in the financial year when it was clear that all funds were allocated, leaving us with requests from overseas communities and volunteers to match them, but no placement possible until further funds were raised. Appeals on behalf of and involving the cooperation of volunteers and their Australian communities gave us the confidence to proceed with several placements in this category. Our confidence was rewarded when further donations, received after making the placements, provided income to support each of them until completion two years down the track.

Community Education was managed through stories from the field being structured into thought provoking newsletters to encourage reflection on presenting issues in a very similar way (See, Judge Act) to that used by the founders of PALMS in community groups before the 1960s. There is much to learn in going back to the future and there is a great deal for all to gain as we build these collaborations with communities. The following reflection from Nick and Jane Eagar highlights the benefit to the volunteers that goes beyond anything PALMS could do alone.

“Our placement was in Atabae, Timor Leste, two hours west of Dili [a somewhat isolated place for a volunteer from another culture]. This rural village has a strong friendship with a community here in Australia known as Friends and Partners of East Timor (FPET), [which] was started several years ago by a group of inspirational people in The Gap parish of Brisbane. Their main goal is to build a friendship with the people of Atabae along with providing practical help including the building of schools, supporting the education of youth, and sponsoring our placement – that of a midwife/nurse and community development officer.” PALMS assisted FPET in their relationship with Atabae and together we did a needs assessment and arranged the placement particulars with the local community.

“PALMS and FPET working together provided us with invaluable support during our preparation process, our time in the field, and returning back home. We felt incredibly supported whilst away. We knew that there was an army of people praying for us and providing spiritual support and material help to make our placement a success. We were a part of their monthly meeting via a conference call to express our concerns and frustrations along with sharing our joys and happiness. Upon our return we were given the opportunity to share our story with the people of The Gap and Bardon parishes and assist FPET to raise further awareness of the plight of the Timorese.”

This is one example of how PALMS Vision works. There are so many other ways where we

“participate in and develop networks that link and engage people across cultures in order to cooperate in reducing poverty and achieve a just, sustainable, interdependent and peaceful world.”

State Representatives (returned volunteers themselves) interview new applicants; seven other organisations provided speakers at PALMS Orientation Course; while a new initiative saw us gain professional support for some volunteers and partners in the field from related organisations in Australia.

The most significant outcome of networking during the last financial year came in the pursuit of a continued relationship with AusAID. Some were equivocal about this given clear signs from AusAID that they wanted bigger partners than PALMS. It must be remembered that it was cooperation with them for over twenty years that provided the bulk of the funding for PALMS Global Mission. So while professionally coordinating seven Religious Orders, two universities and another sending organisation in an Expression of Interest for an AusAID contract did not win us a new contract, it did leave us with a strong Global Volunteer Network committed to ongoing collaboration with tangible material support for the PALMS program of relationship-first development.

In a related connection with the University of Wollongong we have won a partnership grant from the Australian Research Council that will see an intern PhD student working in PALMS office over the next three years. This will put us at the forefront of research into the effectiveness of global volunteering in the Asia Pacific region. All models of volunteering will be examined, which should assist us and others funded under AusAIDs new guidelines to identify the most effective approaches.

The contributions by so many to all above, and more, have achieved a much stronger and healthier position both in our accounts and our relationships than we expected to be in at year’s end. As known, particularly by people involved with global mission, we do not control all the variables and so, while we might set out with a particular set of targets, combined effort brings with it the God factor through which we can achieve, as we did, so much more.

Community engagement will continue to assist us to face the challenges ahead. To continue best practice in recruiting, preparing and supporting volunteers; to continue responding to the requests of communities for skill development and authentic relationship will require a financial contribution previously sourced from AusAID.

As we get better at sharing the good news Church networks inspired by PALMS demonstration of Catholic Social Teaching are responding.

So, we are continuing to build on the successes of the last financial year by more effectively engaging the most significant network of all, the best g l o b a l educators, the ones whose stories bring home our vision and values, the ones who know the richness of t h e experience. We are calling on the loyalty of returned volunteers to tell their stories on behalf of the many communities still requesting PALMS’ support. Facilitated by our new Community Relations Coordinator, Brendan Joyce, returned volunteers are being asked to commit to a PALMS home mission, engaging our Australian communities through a ‘Palms CommUnity Partnership’ and thus continuing to assist in building a just, sustainable, interdependent and peaceful world.