We’re often told volunteering is good for the community, but few realise how life-changing the experience can be for volunteers themselves. A world of exotic food, music, customs and art was revealed to Plimmerton volunteer Judy McKoy when she began working with immigrants to Porirua.

“I discovered a treasure trove of people I didn’t know existed in my community,” she says. “It opened my eyes to all sorts of things.” Five years ago Ms McKoy gave up her decades-long career as a high school music teacher and immersed herself in the world of immigrants, gaining a history degree and then a masters in the history of Irish immigration to New Zealand. At the same time she began teaching English to a Burmese family who had settled in Cannons Creek, and this developed into a strong friendship with the family and a passion for volunteering.

“It was a very powerful thing in my life at the time,” she says. “Volunteering is not just about one’s own view and how you can make a difference, it’s also keeping your skills updated and placing yourself in a wider world context.” Ms McKoy is now immersed in a range of immigrant cultures in her volunteer role as researcher and organiser extraordinaire for the Migrating Kitchen exhibition, currently at Pataka.

In her quest to find local immigrants to participate, Ms McKoy found herself celebrating mid-winter at a Welsh pub in Wellington, at a South African church service in Plimmerton, and hearing six languages spoken at once in a South African butchery and cake shop in Tawa. “It’s been enormous fun, I have to say.”

She has also been exposed to the obstacles migrants deal with in New Zealand and the heartbreaking stories they tell about their former lives. Refugees are likely to be “damaged” after living under horrific regimes, and skilled migrants often leave family behind, sometimes in danger, to make a better life in New Zealand, Ms McKoy says. “I started talking to them one-on-one and the tears started.”

Migrating Kitchen helps immigrants celebrate their cultures with each other and with New Zealanders. “They’re unreservedly so appreciative of Kiwis taking notice of who they are,” Ms McKoy says. Migrants can struggle to gain acceptance among New Zealanders, who seldom speak any language but English and are reticent about embracing the unfamiliar, she says.

“We think New Zealand is accepting and open and friendly and easy, and it can be – but in a lot of ways, despite the fact that we travel a lot, we don’t always accept people.” However, volunteering can change people’s perceptions, she says. “It’s human nature to make connections.” The Migrating Kitchen exhibition runs at Pataka until September 25. Volunteer Porirua can be contacted on 04 237 5355. Article from Kapi-Mana News.

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About Volunteer Wellington

Volunteer Wellington | Te Puna Tautoko is the champion of volunteering in New Zealand Aotearoa!

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