Honorary OAM for volunteer

Jennifer Walsh was awarded an Honorary OAM for her work in palliative care. (Picture Justin Flynn)

By Justin Flynn

When Jennifer Walsh left her home in southern California to travel to Australia 13 years ago it was only meant to be for 12 months.

She stayed and now Jennifer, who has lived in Ocean Grove for the past five years, was given an Honorary OAM on January 26 for her service to community health.

“My partner and I moved here in 2007 thinking it would be a fun adventure for a year and then decided we’d never want to go home,” she said.

“We now have permanent residency and have applied for citizenship.”

Jennifer’s work as the palliative care co-ordinator for volunteers at Barwon Health has been lauded.

She has volunteered with the Red Cross in the USA, is a founding member of LGBTIQ Inclusive Practice Working Group and has volunteered helping to build houses in developing countries.

“I used to do disaster-related work with Red Cross in the States,” she said.

“I kind of fell into palliative care and filled a [maternity] leave position and totally fell in love with it.

“My job is to support the volunteers. I feel in a lot of ways they are doing the difficult work. I get so much out of what we are able to accomplish with the patients.

“In some ways, it is hard because of the inevitability of working with these patients, but also we get to create experiences for them that they would not otherwise have access to.”

One such experience is the Have a Go program, where patients can spend a day at the zoo or go to a Cats game among other experiences.

“I feel really lucky because I have about 80 of these amazing humans running around the Geelong region supporting patients and after their patients die, they support their loved ones,” Jennifer said.

“I think people with a life-limiting illness know they have an illness and think they are seen through the lens of illness.

“So when the volunteer program comes in and says ‘we can come mow your lawn’ or ‘we can get you to a Cats game’ or anything in between, it goes back to who they are as a human.”

Growing up in Huntington Beach just south of Los Angeles, Jennifer was always drawn to helping others.

“I always look back and it’s not a huge surprise that I ended up in volunteer management,” she said.

“When I was in high school I started volunteering through my church group, going to Mexico and building houses and doing that kind of stuff.

“I think I learned really early the importance of community-based work and giving back.

“When I came across to Australia, I was working on Black Saturday with volunteers here. So it’s almost been the theme through my life.”

Jennifer and her partner have volunteered on house-building projects in countries such as Armenia, Haiti, Bolivia, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and Malaysia.

“There’s this sense that we are doing this amazing thing, but I think we get much more out of it,” she said.

“We carry a lot of bricks and build walls but I feel we get so much more out of it by spending a couple of weeks in a country, working side by side with the families.”

Back in Geelong, Jennifer’s team of around 80 volunteers have had to adjust to life during a pandemic.

“The team has responded so well through COVID, I feel really lucky to have been in the role that I am in to guide them through that,” she said.

“Barwon Health made the decision in March last year to stop face-to-face volunteering. I went back to the team and said our options are to sit this out until this pandemic is over and we do virtual volunteering. It was amazing what we were able to accomplish during that time.”