Reflections of a volunteer – the back room of the frontline

Pictured is Marianne with her daughter, Emily.

In the absence of Federal Government support for people seeking asylum during COVID-19, people from across the community pitch in to ensure that no individual, child, or family is left behind. Without our volunteers, JRS Australia would not be able to provide critical support to people seeking asylum, refugees and migrants in vulnerable situations. Volunteers pack and deliver food, organise community support drives, and raise awareness of the issues in their communities and with their local decision makers. We are privileged enough to hear from Marianne Dwyer about her experiences as a volunteer during this time.

It was a Sunday night in mid-March when I texted Maeve and said that I was feeling a little nervous with Covid-19 sniffing around. We had a discussion and it was no big deal.

No one could have anticipated the avalanche that was about to take place. My daughter, Emily, was returning from overseas the following Friday and we isolated for 2 weeks. When I returned to Westmead, one of JRS Australia’s community centres, life had drastically changed.

Pictured is the JRS Refugee Foodbank delivery service that JRS implemented to maximise social distancing measures.

I am in my sixth year as a Wednesday morning foodbank volunteer with JRS Australia. Over the years, my role has changed greatly. I would say now there is no more ‘my role’, but rather together it is ‘ready, set, go!’.

Pre-COVID, I would arrive at Westmead and say hi to everyone. People would start arriving for foodbank, interviews, gardening, mums and bubs group, English classes, or maybe just to hangout.

Each week in foodbank, our numbers were growing.

Foodbank was set up like a shop. As people would come and access it, you got to know very well the crowd favourite ‘buys’; it might be chickpeas, basmati rice or tinned tomatoes, and the excitement of if there were onions or fresh cucumbers was always such a joy.

I always loved the chat about what our friends might now cook that night for a family dinner, and to hear the review of how it went when they came back the next week (or fortnight).

COVID has robbed us of ‘the chat’ and much more. It is now all about the race – getting food out to people as quickly as we can, so no one is left behind.

The first thing I noticed on my return after 2 weeks isolation was that the gate was closed. You had to ring to be let in, and only staff, volunteers and registered visitors were allowed in.

Those first weeks were crazy. The numbers of people needing help seemed to be growing exponentially but sadly this was not being met by the same rate of donations. Supermarkets had limits on the number of items anyone could purchase, for example, tins of tomatoes and chickpeas, and bags of rice. Our generous donors were struggling to get for their own families, let alone have some to share with JRS.

Our supplies were low, and we spent many hours going from shop to shop trying to source basic products. Those first weeks were very hard but somehow, we always managed to have enough to make bags to send out, even if they were just the basics.

As the needs of foodbank support at JRS Australia has become more well known, it has been amazing to see people’s kindness and generosity come to the fore. Huge deliveries from community organisations such as Addison Road Community Centre, schools and parishes started to arrive daily – you’ll never know what you’ll find at 9am on a Wednesday at JRS but there is no greater feeling than when the shelves are looking empty and a car pulls up full of donations for us.

It’s a lot about being practical, thinking creatively and trying to be fair with the donations that need to be spread across so many.
In the back of your mind you are aware of what different people would love in their deliveries, but sadly you don’t know who you are packing for. You do your best and hope that maybe those tins of tomatoes and chickpeas will create something special for dinner that night.

You imagine that the little extra chocolate you packed in brings a smile to the face of the person at the other end.
The staff at JRS Australia have been amazing. Everyone just jumps in and helps; packing, unpacking, sorting, carrying boxes – whatever needs to be done.

To completely flip the support model in such a short time is an amazing feat, and the team have done an awesome job setting up the infrastructure so that people can continue to be supported.

It is a race, that is for sure! However, there are no winners, and the only real loser is if someone has been left behind.

Ready, set, go!


Interested in Volunteering?  

We’d love to hear from you. Please email Jane: for more information.

Please note, the COVID-19 Crisis means that we cannot currently accept volunteers in high risk age/health categories. We look forward to welcoming you to our team in better times, and also reconnecting with our much-valued JRS volunteers who have been forced to step back during this period.

Special thanks to Marianne and to all our incredible JRS Volunteers, past and present, for doing so much to promote the dignified living of people seeking asylum, refugees and migrants in vulnerable situations. Pictured below is Jane Turner, our JRS Volunteer Coordinator.


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