By Caroline Smith
For Perth couple Sarah Hardy and Damien Beale, a volunteering program in Papua New Guinea (PNG) provided them with many happy memories and the opportunity to put their medical and educational training to good use.
The married couple – who are a nurse and speech pathologist respectively, spent 18 months from 2007 to 2008 working for Palms Australia, supporting villagers in Banz to provide services to people with disabilities.
Ms Hardy said she had done volunteering in her teens and twenties with St Vincent de Paul, but was looking for a placement overseas with her husband when she heard about the role in Papua New Guinea.
“I remember sometime around 2000, I was over east at a national Youth Justice festival and I remember seeing pamphlets or paraphernalia about Palms and the name obviously stuck,” she said.“Years later, I was researching volunteer agencies because I wanted to do overseas work and it stuck out.
Ms Hardy said that the more she looked into it, the more the things they did began to resonate with what she wanted to do.
“Their approach to sustainable development and relationship building. They were a small personalised organisation, so they could accommodate both my husband and myself and the skills we brought,” she said.
Upon arrival in PNG, the couple travelled to the highlands in the country’s west, where they were tasked with setting up a disability services sub-station near Mt Hagen, working for Callan Services – a disability support provider linked with the Edmund Rice Foundation.
“We’d use a method where people working in disabilities go into the community and give resources, and educate or train the local people to look after their own disabled,” Ms Hardy said.
“So we were promoting that model as well as setting up the sub-centre with buildings that Callan had provided, and just get services going within the district, which was quite large.
“So it wasn’t like we were walking into something that was already set up, we had to create our own roles a bit.”
To support them in this role, they were provided with a local teacher’s wage, which helped put them on a more equal standing with members of the community.
“It helped us be seen as one of the locals a bit more. We tried to find our way, listening to the community and used the resources we were given,” Ms Hardy said.
Now back in Australia, Ms Hardy said she would consider doing volunteering again with her family, although they would probably wait until their two children, born since their return had grown up.
The organisation they volunteered with – Palms Australia, has its origins in the ‘Paulian Association’ which was established in Sydney in 1956, providing assistance to local communities.
Five years later, the program was extended to communities overseas who request the placement of volunteers to assist and develop health, education and other facilities.
In recent years, Palms volunteers have been sent to communities in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, including in Tanzania, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and indigenous Australia