John Lee
John Lee Stephen McKenzie

Aged care move no hindrance to John's volunteering

FOR 40 YEARS, RSL Care Carrington resident John Lee has been actively giving back to his community as a volunteer.

When he moved into RSL Care Carrington, at Parkinson, south-west of Brisbane, in April 2015 he had no plans to stop. With the support of staff he was able to continue to don his bright orange overalls and attend Monday night SES meetings, providing training for new volunteers and assisting with peer to peer support and counselling for members who need it.

For John, his love of service started when he joined the Australian National Service in 1956. He still has strong connections to the Australian Armed Forces and served as the RSL Salisbury President and RSL Sunnybank Vice President for a number of years.

After marrying Maureen he settled at Rocklea, but the family were badly affected by the floods that swept through Brisbane in 1974. He still recalls the sense of loss and hopelessness he felt at seeing his home destroyed by the rising water.

The devastating experience proved a positive turning point. Inspired by the outpouring of support from the people who came to his assistance offering food, shelter and most importantly mateship, John determined to repay his community for the help that was offered in his time of need.

He had that opportunity in 1975 when the Australian Government announced the creation of a new voluntary organisation designed to help the public in times of crisis. John was among the first SES volunteers, with member number 1864. He joined the service's signals division to build on his Army experience as a signalman.

In those early years he says the SES was a 'make it up as you go along' project.

"We had to learn what we needed on the job. We went to a home that had been badly damaged by a storm, but we didn't have any tarps so we had to seal the house with about six army tents roped together,” he says.

"Over the years we got our act together and were able to access a range of different training courses to help us with our work.

"I had specific training in storm and cyclone recovery but I helped out with a number of different issues including floods, fires and the recent Hendra virus.”

While continuing his voluntary service John worked as a stereotyper at the Brisbane Telegraph and later, when the newspaper moved away from hot metal production, held jobs as a cab driver, a market worker, a World Expo '88 staffer and a security officer.

"He's done everything,” chuckles Maureen, who kept busy organising their six children.

A highlight was when he helped country singer John Denver navigate the crowds outside Brisbane's Festival Hall after a concert - he still has the whisky glass the star used on stage.

John and Maureen moved out of their home of 58 years and into RSL Care Carrington in 2015 as John began to need more support due to mobility difficulties. Initially he made the move alone and came home on weekends while Maureen prepared to join him a few months later.

These days they have adjacent rooms and enjoy sharing a movie and ice cream and supporting the Broncos and Cowboys in the NRL.

In May this year, John Lee was nominated for a Volunteering Queensland Lifetime Achievement Award and named a finalist. He and his family were invited to Brisbane's City Hall, where he received a plaque honouring his commitment to volunteering.

John's room is adorned with this award and other trophies and certificates honouring his decades of service.

While he no longer attends weekly meetings and has handed in his overalls, he still maintains a strong connection with the SES and a keen interest in local events.

Today he is still determined to make a difference and jokes that he would be happy to leave his walker behind and climb ladders "if they would only let him”.

Yesterday, December 5, was International Volunteer Day, recognising the contribution of Australia's six million volunteers, like John, who give their time and skills to support others.


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