“A smile goes a long way to warm someone’s heart,” says Don Standley, who, six days a week, starts his day the same way. By 6.30am, summer and winter, he has left his house in the Sydney suburb of Doonside and is at the home of the same local elderly resident. As a volunteer with Blacktown Neighbour Aid in the city’s north-western suburbs, Don knows how important a regular friendly face and a cuppa can be for older Australians.
“A smile goes a long way to warm someone’s heart,” says Don. “To give them that bit of strength … that is what I hope I do because they sure open my heart every time.”
Don, 67, has been working with Blacktown Neighbour Aid, a community service that helps older or disabled people live independently in their own home, for four years. He came to the service through his own heartbreak, when his partner of 28 years passed away in 2014. In the wake of his loss, he started “going downhill.” He stopped exercising, gained weight and developed diabetes. “I decided to pull myself out of the rut I was in,” he says, “and I wound up finding Blacktown Neighbour Aid.”
Don, who is originally from England, began working with a few of the service’s elderly clients, taking them shopping and to doctor’s appointments, along with making home visits. “We have a coffee and a chat for probably half-an-hour or an hour,” he explains. “They are glad to see me every time I turn up.”
One of the most important parts of Don’s work is to simply talk to his charges to, know how they are feeling, to leave them with happy thoughts during the day and to make sure they are alright.
However, Don doesn’t just turn up on their doorsteps with a big grin and a warm heart – he comes proudly wearing his father’s precious medals, awarded for his service in Guam and Guadalcanal during World War II. Not only was Don’s father decorated, he also taught his son about the importance of respect and helping others.
As well as home visits Don pilots mini-bus every week to pick up a diverse group of older people to take them to the organisation’s base. Of his passengers he says: “I like them all. They’ve all got their own cultures, they’ve all different but they are all in pain and they all have all got the same friendly demeanour.”
Since those early days, Don has expanded his volunteering career, and now also works with Meals on Wheels and Catholic Care, too. He decided to study and to get his Certificate III in Aged Care, too.
Even though his roster might change from month-to-month, he makes sure to stay in touch those men and women who mean so much to him. “I still ring my clients every so often to make sure they are alright. I’ll give them a ring to say, ‘How are you doing?’ I’ve lost three clients in the past three years, and I keep getting told, ‘Don’t get attached’ but it’s very hard.”
It is clear that Don has truly made a true difference in his area. It’s also clear how much giving back to those in need means to him. “If I wasn’t doing volunteer work and meeting other people, then my life would be like a cage and there would be nothing else for me to do except vegetate and just go out of my mind,” says Don. “Helping others, I’m giving something back.”