Mel Lemke
Adventist Volunteer Service Director
South Pacific Division

What is a "volunteer"?
Volunteers are heroes. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Young people, old people, skilled, unskilled, fat, skinny, talented and klutzy. They do what they do because they believe in something and want to make a difference. It's not about money or ego. Volunteering is about giving a part of yourself away, and being surprised by the results. It's like traveling - once you've done it, you can never go back to the mundane and the ordinary.

How many people are currently working as volunteers through the church's program within the South Pacific Division?
Hundreds. Thousands, actually, if you count all the volunteers involved in church every week. But hundreds if we are talking about those we place through the AVS (Adventist Volunteer Service) program. Right now we have 93 long-term volunteers serving in countries around the globe. We have 257 young people either on or just back from STORM Co trips. A youth fly’n’build team from SNZ has just spent 2 weeks of their holidays working at Aore in the Solomon Islands. A specialist heart team involving 28 health professionals have just returned from PNG. There are so many different opportunities to serve in our own countries as well as in other cultures. Last year we processed 957 volunteers. This year it will be more.

Has anyone ever guessed how many volunteers there are working within the church?
I haven't. It would have to be thousands - perhaps millions. I think everyone is a volunteer in some way. Some just take it further and choose service as a way of life. Only a fraction of volunteers come through our program. Most just serve with joy without recognition or support. These are the real heroes to me.

Do you ever get any strange requests for volunteers?
I've only been in the job for 4 months, so nothing too strange yet. Lot's of exciting ones though. We've got seven young people on the Pinnacle of Terror team in Tasmania, doing stuff in schools, two young adults on the Extreme Team in North America, and youth workers at summer camps in the US. We have volunteers in Norway, China, Japan, Russia, Jerusalem, Cambodia, Kenya, Thailand, Guam, Russia, the Himalayas, Australia, NZ, and the Pacific Islands. The variety of opportunity is incredible.

What does it take to be a volunteer?
Courage. Courage to go against the flow, to give instead of take, to do something new. Courage to face hardship, isolation and fear. Courage to grow. Courage to be prepared never to be the same again.

Are there any educational prerequisites?
Some volunteer positions require degrees. A number like you to have a couple of years of tertiary education. Some require specialist training. But there are a lot that just need a willing hand and heart, particularly in short-term mission.

Does it cost money?
Yes, almost always. A lot depends on where you go, what you do, and for how long. Volunteers are typically supported by a network of family and friends, and many do fund raising as well. Longer-term volunteers get a stipend from the organization they work for to cover living expenses.

What does the volunteer get out of volunteering?
Volunteering can be really hard and confronting. Often things go wrong and the unexpected is the norm. Sometimes working environments can be very harsh and basic, and supervisors have been known to be obnoxious. Sounds like a great sales pitch doesn't it? 95% of the time volunteers say it was the best time of their life, and that they learned so much about themselves, the world, God, and people. Many say a year, or even a few weeks or months as a volunteer, changed them in ways they never could have guessed. Mostly, I think, there is a real sense of satisfaction with having been, and seen, and done, and achieved. It's a bit like climbing a mountain.

Have you ever lost a volunteer?
Not yet.

What's the best thing about your job?
Working with and meeting people who are excited about service and adventure, and who love their church.

Come to think of it, what is your job?
Matching people who want to serve with opportunities, recruiting, visiting and keeping in touch with volunteers, assessing workplaces, networking, handling crises that develop, and managing the SPD volunteer program globally.

Do you need more volunteers?
Yes. The volunteer program has grown rapidly in recent years. I believe it's one of the most exciting "growth industries" of the church. If you check out the volunteer website (volunteers.gc.adventist.org) you'll see current opportunities all over the world.

How is the volunteer cared for in a foreign land?
Most of them very well, some of them quite poorly. That's a part of my job too - where a volunteer has a bad experience, we check the issues and institution, and make a decision on whether we send other volunteers there. It's more about care and support than facilities. I want to ensure that all of the volunteers from this Division receive good care and have a positive experience.


Do volunteers really make a difference? Sometimes it seems such a short time.
Absolutely. I've seen it demonstrated over and over.

What kind of stories get you excited?
Each story is unique and special. I love most what is beyond the story - the sparkle and smile as the volunteer tells and remembers - even amidst pain. A maturity that speaks of lessons learned, experiences shared, and resolve to return.

Anything else?
I think everyone should do a volunteer year. To miss out is to miss too much. My volunteer year was the best of my life. A huge bonus for me was meeting, working with and later marrying the girl of my dreams while a volunteer on the other side of the world (it happens!). Seriously, plan to do a year of volunteer work sometime before you are 25. I can almost guarantee you that it will be a standout year for you.

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