‘This program is life-changing for young Indigenous people’

A six-week volunteering stint in Vanuatu in 2010 was a pivotal experience for Clinton Wilson, who grew up in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges. His time in the Pacific made him rethink his values and inspired him to volunteer six years later with a team in South Africa as part of the Australian Volunteers Program. Because of the leadership skills he showed on this assignment, he was invited back in 2018 as team leader. Here is Clinton’s story.

I came from a background where there was a lot of emphasis around getting a trade. So, after high school, that’s what I did.

When I was 24 I had my first exposure to international volunteering, going to Vanuatu as part of Youth Challenge Australia.  

Australian volunteer Clinton Wilson third from left with Australian and local volunteers in Vanuatu in 2010
Clinton Wilson (third from left) volunteering with Youth Challenge Australia in Vanuatu in 2010. Supplied: Clinton Wilson
Australian volunteer Clinton Wilson right volunteering with the Classic Wallabies in South Africa in 2015
Clinton Wilson (right) volunteering as part of the Classic Wallabies Indigenous Exchange in 2015. Supplied: Clinton Wilson

I was working as an Indigenous mentor with one of the state government agencies in SA, encouraging disengaged Indigenous kids into apprenticeships and traineeships. I got an email about this volunteer program and didn’t think I’d get in. I’d never been out of the country before, I didn’t even have a passport.

“I gained perspective of what’s important” 

It was the middle of the wet season, we were right out in the middle of the jungle in a tin shed, and it bucketed down with rain every single day. There was just me, another guy, a girl and a team leader.

We were trying to build a disability centre; it was pick-and-shovel work all day in the jungle which is pretty bloody hard. We lived off tins of tuna and rice basically for six weeks, and we didn’t have much water.

Coming back to Australia I was in reverse culture shock. It’s hard to convey what happens when you come back from something like that. It’s a really intense experience emotionally and physically.

We were in the jungle in the morning and in the afternoon, we were in Sydney central; I still had mud on my shoes from the village.

— Clinton Wilson

Because of that experience, I joined the army and massively changed my way of life. I had been pretty unhealthy, eating lots of junk food, drinking a lot, just being a lad.

The experience in Vanuatu made me think more about the way I can contribute to the community and it gave me perspective of what’s important. That’s why I call it life changing.

“Volunteering realigns your values”

In 2016 I had my second volunteer experience, this time with the Classic Wallabies Exchange. In six weeks, you work with a local community in rural South Africa to help improve under-privileged schools.

Each year the team gets exposed to a range of challenges – cross cultural barriers and being immersed in a culture very similar to our own.

It can be eye-opening to see people in South Africa facing some of the social issues that affect Indigenous Australians, but seeing that they don’t have as much support as we do.

— Clinton Wilson

“It’s a motivator to show us what we can achieve with what we have. For me, this program realigns your values and makes you very aware of them.”

Joining the program again in 2018, this time as team leader, was a great experience for me. I led the five others on our team. I made sure the daily work tasks were allocated and the labour force was busy at all times.

I was responsible for the daily running of the program, any admin issues and medical requirements that came up. We had people who were unwell, one guy got bitten by a tic. I sorted out problems like that.

Being a team leader, you have a massive influence on the character and flavour of the project; it can quite easily go south with poor judgement if you’re too strict or too lenient.

Australian volunteers with local volunteers at Malpane Primary School South Africa 2018
Australian volunteers and local staff at Mapalane Primary School for the 2018 Classic Wallabies Indigenous Exchange. Supplied: Dimity Shillingsworth
The Classic Wallabies Indigenous Exchange cohort of 2018 in the Drakensberg South Africa
The Classic Wallabies Indigenous Exchange cohort 2018 in the Drakensberg. Top row (left to right): Cameron Balcombe, Leilani Knight, Dimity Shillingsworth and Clinton Wilson. Bottom row: Alkira Edwards (left) and Jemma Milloy. Supplied: Dimity Shillingsworth

“I gained confidence in my judgement”

Being in that position - needing to make decisions - was a great experience. It gave me confidence in my judgement. It’s reassuring to know I can manage a complex project, make the right decisions and get the right outcome.

There were close to 200 people who worked on the garden and I was able to manage that huge workforce – that’s not a position you get thrown into very often. The people involved ranged from kids from 11, community members in their 60s, some American students and us – so a very varied workforce.

This year we gelled really well together as a team. In the space of 15 working days we managed to build 32 keyhole gardens, paint a classroom and build a fence.

The keyholes are a garden designed for farming. They are a raised garden bed suited to arid areas, they have a grassed area in the middle and food scraps go in a basket which gets watered and turned into liquid fertiliser for the garden.

Australian volunteers join in a traditional dance at Mapalane Primary School South Africa 2018
Australian volunteers join in traditional dancing at Mapalane Primary School during the 2018 Classic Wallabies Indigenous Exchange. Photo: Sabrina Chielens
The keyhole gardens built by Australian volunteers and the local community at Mapalane Primary School in 2018
Keyhole gardens built by Australian volunteers and the local community at Mapalane Primary School, South Africa, in 2018. Photo: Sabrina Chielens

“Just a starting point”

The Classic Wallabies brings out the best in people. The program is a catalyst: everyone who has done the program has changed in some way for the better.

It’s hard to say ‘ok I changed at 2pm on the sixth of July – that’s when I had an epiphany’ – but it plants a seed and it takes a little while for it to grow.

People come back with momentum and motivation; and however that manifests, it’s just a starting point. I think in 20- or 30-years’ time, you will see the people who have done this exchange in parliament, or in executive positions where they are making a change.

These kinds of programs are life-changing – it’s sort of a cliché but they really are, in terms of emotional maturity and personal development that it has on people.

— Clinton Wilson

For those who go on Classic Wallabies, it seems to take a few years for people to come to the full understanding of what they’ve learnt.

There is a lot of stored energy now. These kinds of projects are an investment. It may take some time before the full investment will come to fruition.

The program has given me more confidence and a realisation of the skills I have. I’m now re-evaluating what I do for work and how that fits with my values.

I’m looking at studying something along the lines of community development or social inclusion. My change might come in a few years’ time rather than immediately.

Australian volunteers on their return walkshop in Hosier Lane Melbourne Clinton Wilson Dimity Shillingsworth Leilani Knight Alkira Edwards Jemma Milly and Cameron Balcomnbe
Back home: The Classic Wallabies Indigenous Exchange 2018 participants in Hozier Lane, Melbourne, after returning to Australia. Left to right: Clinton Wilson, Dimity Shillingsworth, Leilani Knight, Alkira Edwards, Jemma Milly and Cameron Balcomnbe. Photo: Nicole Donaldson

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