General Philanthropy

A call for help dials up unexpected benefits

Pauline Kanhalikham / 16 December 2020

I am a seasoned volunteer. I’ve put my hand up for multiple activities over the years. All of them were as described in the brief: cooking for those in need; wrapping gifts at Christmas; mentoring students. But nothing prepared me for the impact of the Australian Red Cross’ COVID CONNECT program. 

It was April 2020 and the global pandemic was upon us. Lockdowns were being imposed and companies around Australia were sending their workforces home. Red Cross was concerned about the impact that social isolation would have on their clients, some of the most vulnerable in the community. They reached out to the Origin Energy Foundation, where I work.

Initially Red Cross needed logistical support, getting Origin volunteers – all working from home - registered, trained and set up to make phone calls to check-in on their clients, many of them elderly and living alone.  

I was nervous about making my first call. There was a database to navigate, a script to follow and a list of references to refer clients to if required. This was volunteering for a brand new, untested program during a health crisis, whilst juggling my full-time job and keeping my toddler out of harm’s way. What if I didn’t know what to say? What if I gave the wrong information or there was silence that I couldn’t fill?

I needn’t have worried. The clients were friendly, often funny, and willing to share their life stories with a complete stranger. For many, I was the only contact they’d have with another human that day.

I was brought up with a strong sense of duty to take care of my elders, so I was amazed by how many clients I spoke to who were over 80 years old, lived alone, with a disability and yet had no family or friends to count on.  They relied on help from the community or council workers to get their groceries or to assist them with bathing. Under normal circumstances they’d have a weekly outing to the shops - their opportunity to chat with others. But that connection with the outside world came to a grinding halt when COVID-19 hit. Our daily calls were their only link to the outside world and something the Red Cross told us their clients looked forward to every day.

As the months rolled on, having undertaken the Red Cross’ psychological first aid training, I opted to take on more experienced calls, for clients with a greater need. There were only a handful of them, so I got to know them over the course of several months. We never met in person – and we probably never will - but the people I checked-in on during this time had a lasting impact on me.

At the start of this program I thought I was giving my time to help these clients, to listen and empathise, but I could not imagine how much I would benefit from it, too. I learned something new from each call, laughed so much that my cheeks hurt, and often came away re-thinking how I viewed my own life.  Letting those I spoke to know how much I enjoyed our calls really lifted their spirits, too. You could almost hear them smiling on the other end of the phone.

Over 9,000 calls were made to people across Australia living in social isolation through this program. 83% of call recipients said the program had improved their sense of wellbeing. Their feedback included “this service has been a bit of a lifesaver”, “a weight has been lifted from my shoulders” and “I’m more at peace with the whole situation, the fear is gone, anxiety gone I feel so much better each day.” I’ve also seen some Origin volunteers who I know to be shy and quiet, grow in confidence from volunteering for COVID CONNECT.  

When I reflect on 2020 many years from now, I will do so with pride, knowing that I helped to make someone’s life a little easier during a very difficult time.


The Australian Red Cross was awarded the 2020 Workplace Giving Excellence Award – Silver, for Best Innovation, acknowledging the delivery of this program which transforms workplace giving.

Pauline Kanhalikham is the Finance and Program Coordinator for the Origin Energy Foundation. 

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