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Examining the motivations, experiences and contributions of AMRRIC Volunteers

AMRRIC Vet Volunteer Dr Sarah Irwin sedating a patient restrained by Dr Ella Richardson – Partner Vet for the Lajamanu, NT program.

The following article has been adapted from a piece written by AMRRIC Program Manager – Strategic Delivery, Dr Bonny Cumming, featuring AMRRIC Volunteers' quotes, for Volunteering NT/SA’s Vitality Magazine…

Each year volunteer vets, vet nurses and data collectors assist AMRRIC and its partners to deliver remote community veterinary programs.  AMRRIC’s volunteers travel from their home base to remote communities across the country, often journeying thousands of kilometres at their own cost before they even reach the team’s meeting point. For most, their motivation is the personal satisfaction gained from volunteering their professional skills to assist both animals and communities in need:  

 “I am struck by the challenging conditions and vast distances for Aboriginal community members to travel in order to access basic health and veterinary care.   I’m grateful to be able to use my professional skill in order to affect positive change for the people and animal living in these isolated areas.”

Many are also driven by the opportunity to travel to and experience life in remote communities, and better understand and appreciate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures:

“I want to give back to the community and also experience different ways of life in Australia.”

“I think volunteering within a community is the best way to learn more about its culture – far more so than visiting as a tourist.”

Delivering remote community veterinary programs is an experience totally unfamiliar to most newly recruited AMRRIC volunteers, and is a world away from the metropolitan small animal veterinary practices from which most volunteers hail:

“Things can't and don't run like they do in a regular vet clinic, you have to be patient and building rapport and relationships is very important.” 

With no dedicated veterinary facilities in the vast majority of remote communities, the visiting vet team must bring with them all of their medicines, equipment and consumables, and set up in a location offered by the community.  A great facility will include air-conditioning, running water and power; in some communities though, open-air surgeries with a distant tap is all that is available.   Physically, AMRRIC volunteers contend with extremes of weather, heatstroke, dehydration and plagues of flies, yet mercifully, adapt with grace and flexibility, and of course the aid of electrolytes:  

“It was a lot hotter than Canberra… as expected!”

“On our last day, the unexpected rain prohibited our planned trip to Emu Point. We also had to spend a bit of time waiting for one of the flood-ways to be clear so we could return back to Darwin. We made the most of our predicament by having a picnic outdoors and enjoying the surrounding scenery.”

“Bring a few of your favourite comfort foods, and a fly hat if you have one.”

While prior to each program AMRRIC works to ensure all volunteers are thoroughly prepared for the cultural differences they are likely to encounter, no amount of induction can completely prepare someone who has not previously experienced life in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. For most, volunteering with AMRRIC is an eye-opening experience that helps to put into perspective, the important things in life:

“Community life is completely different to westernised life. Everything runs to a different time schedule and is viewed through a very different cultural lens. It is important to understand family structure and the very real struggle to feed everyone with very little income. Whilst most of the dogs looked the picture of health, it is still easy to jump to conclusions if not well prepared.” 

“I gained a new appreciation of cultural issues and complexities.”

“As a nation, we have historically treated our Indigenous peoples extremely poorly, so to have a sense of actually doing something practical to make amends was so very worthwhile.”

In 2018, 31 AMRRIC volunteers enhanced the outcomes of 17 veterinary programs delivered throughout communities in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia. AMRRIC vet program volunteers contributed a total of 265 days – roughly 2,277 hours – on the ground, providing essential vet services including companion animal desexing, anti-parasite treatments and treatments for injuries and illness.  Even using conservative hourly rates, AMRRIC calculates the dollar-value of this contribution to be around $98,400; an incredible and much appreciated sum that has tangible impacts in improving the health and safety of remote communities.  Economically, volunteers also incur opportunity loss with 63% of AMRRIC’s 2018 volunteers foregoing income in order to participate.  Further, AMRRIC’s limited funding also necessitates volunteers to pay for their own flights and travel expenses – an estimated sum total of $41,300 during the 2018 season.  

Despite the costs they incur, the feedback from AMRRIC volunteers is overwhelmingly positive: 

“It’s an extremely rewarding experience, the support is great and it introduces you to cultures that most Australians wouldn’t have ever experienced.  The One Health benefits of the program are also very evident right there in front of you, so it’s a very rewarding volunteer experience.”

“Despite it being a volunteer trip, I get more out of it than AMRRIC gets out of me.”

“As someone who lives in a huge metropolis, getting out to the more far flung parts of Australia was a lovely experience resulting in a greater understanding of a vast land and diverse people.”

“The experience definitely broadened my horizons and expanded my world view, exposing me to another culture and way of life.  I also made some firm friends.”

Many volunteers also return year after year, or even month after month to participate in AMRRIC volunteering opportunities. With their gained experience, some of AMRRIC’s veterinary volunteers have even gone on to coordinate and deliver their own remote community programs, following AMRRIC’s philosophies which promote culturally respectful, capacity building and sustainable programs.

AMRRIC is extremely grateful for the time and skill that its volunteers so willingly contribute to assist its mission.  



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