Leisure networks help dreams come true

As a child, Jess Mentiplay visited the Serendip Sanctuary near Geelong too many times to count.

So when Parks Victoria, in partnership with Conservation Volunteers and Leisure Networks, provided an opportunity for young people with a disability to volunteer at the sanctuary, it was a match made in heaven.

Jess, who has a mild learning disability, dreams of being a herpetologist, working with amphibians and reptiles.

The volunteer role at Serendip takes her one step closer to realising that dream, assisting her and her fellow volunteers to develop their skills and confidence in the conservation field.

On her first day, Jess provided a wealth of information to other volunteers, pointing out bird calls and different animals in the sanctuary.

They are assisting staff on a project to protect the critically-endangered Eastern Barred Bandicoot Project, as well as general work around the sanctuary.

'I love being out here each week. I really like nature and here you are surrounded by it. You can hear it and smell it,' Jess says.

'I like working as part of a team although I was a bit nervous about how I would fit in. As it turned out I already knew some of the boys, so we are becoming quite good friends now.'

Raegan Low's volunteer work is also helping her gain valuable on-the-job experience in her chosen field. 

For the past two years she's been a volunteer staff member at the North Shore Recreation Club, serving behind the bar.

While Raegan is visually impaired, she manages well behind the bar, with the help of her fellow staff members and the hospitality training she has undertaken.

'I'm happy to volunteer. It's been really good for me. I've made some really good friends,' Raegan says.

Walking into the club on her first night was a big step for Raegan who admits to being 'pathologically shy'.

'It was a big thing for me to walk in and not freak out and run for the door,' she says.

Leisure Networks staff supported her through the first few nervous weeks, but now she not only volunteers behind the bar, but the mother of two also spends time socialising at the club where she has made lots of 'grown up' friends.

For anyone thinking about volunteering Raegan has this advice: 'Don't be scared to try – but get support if you need it. There's no way I would've walked in to the club on my own and taken up that volunteering role, but with support I was able to do it.'

Leisure Networks is a non-profit organisation in the Barwon region which aims to provide people of all abilities with opportunities to discover and pursue their aspirations. Over the past years, it has been proactive in developing volunteering opportunities for young people with a disability, like Raegan and Jess.

Find out how to get involved at www.leisurenetworks.org