From PNG to Lebanon: A lifetime of volunteering experiences

Update: Glenys Davies was born on 5 August 1941 and died on 17 November 2021. A tribute to her from AVI Board Chair Kathy Townsend has been added to the end of this article.


For 77-year-old retired physiotherapist Glenys Davies, the world has always been a fascinating place.

Australian volunteer Glenys Davies volunteering as a physiotherapist in Papua New Guinea in 1963. Supplied: Glenys Davies
Returned Australian volunteer Glenys Davies in 2017. Supplied: Glenys Davies

In 1963, at age 23, Glenys’ curiosity about the world took her via boat to Europe, where she volunteered in an Austrian hostel which housed Hungarian women refugees. For three months she cleaned, answered phones and helped in the kitchen.

“It was an amazing experience, especially as it was my first time overseas,” recalls Glenys.

After Austria, Glenys spent more than a year working as a physiotherapist in the UK and Denmark, gaining skills and experience.

I think I was always, and still am, curious, and travelling is the best way to find out information.

— Glenys Davies

On the plane back to Perth, Glenys remembers flying over India and thinking, “I’ve actually missed quite a lot of the world in-between!”

Having a glimpse of the sub-continent sparked Glenys’ interest in seeing parts of the world other than Europe.

She found out about what was then called Australian Volunteers Abroad (AVA), and put in her application to volunteer in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Glenys was accepted into the program, along with two teachers from Western Australia – the first three volunteers from W.A to be part of the Australian Volunteers Program.

Papua New Guinea in the 1960s

Glenys was assigned a year-long volunteer role with the Red Cross as a physiotherapist working with children with disabilities.

She was 25 in 1966 when she arrived in Port Moresby to be met by her new colleagues, in their white Holden station wagon with the iconic Red Cross painted on its side.

“Port Moresby was a town, not a city, back then,” says Glenys.

Glenys explains how every morning the Red Cross VW would pick up children with disabilities from around Port Moresby and bring them to the children’s clinic, along with their mothers.

I was surprised because I thought I would be part of the team, and then I discovered that I was the team.

— Glenys Davies

For Glenys, who until that point had only worked with adults, she learnt a great deal on the job.

“I’d had two or three years’ experience in physiotherapy at that point but I wasn’t a paediatric physiotherapist by any means,” she says.

“Most of the kids in PNG had some form of cerebral palsy; some were intellectually disabled as well. There were kids who had had poliomyelitis and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain mostly caused by viral infection).

“The children’s mothers would help me with translation - they were indispensable to me.”

Glenys Lebanon
Australian volunteer Glenys Davis during a workshop she ran with colleagues in a Palestinian refugee camp south of Beirut, Lebanon in 2012. Supplied: Glenys Davies
Kholoud Bour al B
Khaloud was Glenys' translator, Arabic teacher and friend while Glenys was on assignment in Lebanaon. Photo: Glenys Davies

Glenys thoroughly enjoyed working with children, especially having contact with their families.

“I ended up being a girl-guide leader in Port Moresby. I had access to the Red Cross station wagon, so I was able to go out to some of the villages.

“That was when I realised how important it was to see the kids in their home setting. They needed to be integrated into the family and schools as much as possible.”

Staying connected to the Australian Volunteers Program

 “I really enjoyed my year in PNG,” says Glenys. “When I came back to Perth I got a bit bored. I always thought, maybe when I retire I’ll again go overseas as a volunteer.”

Glenys was married in 1970, moved to the W.A country for a few years before returning to Perth and having two children.

Time for a change

“I worked in disability services for nearly 20 years then decided it was time for a change.”

She applied and was successful for a volunteer role in Lebanon, with the National Association of Medical Conditions – a Palestinian group that bad been set up to look after children with disabilities.

In 2006 Glenys began her volunteer assignment, based in one of the Palestinian refugee camps north of Tripoli.

“I worked in the camp, and every third week I worked in the valley east of Beirut, providing physio services along with the Lebanese and Palestinian community workers, to the kids with disabilities in that region.”

Glenys (far right) running a workshop for community workers in Lebanon. Supplied: Glenys Davies
Community workers Glenys worked with in Lebanon. Photo: Glenys Davies

After just six weeks on assignment the Beirut airport was bombed and Glenys, along with the 10 other Australian volunteers in the country, were evacuated back to Australia.

Glenys returned to Lebanon the following year to complete her 12-month assignment and lived in one of the 12 refugee camps housing over 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

After returning once again to Australia, Glenys remained connected to Lebanon and returned each year for three to four weeks to continue working with the community workers and families she had med while on assignment.

In 2012, Glenys returned to Lebanon on a three-month assignment with the Australian Volunteers Program.

“That was amazing,” says Glenys.” I had maintained contacts with the Palestinian groups and had contacts in the refugee camps.

“I was virtually able to follow up with the kids I had seen six years before. Some of the children I was working with had multiple disabilities – both physical and intellectual. A lot of my work was around sourcing wheelchairs and other equipment.”

“My aim was for the kids to be integrated into their homes and the refugee schools,” says Glenys.

Looking back

International volunteering broadens your horizons. You get that wonderful opportunity to really get to know the people and be more than a tourist.

— Glenys Davies

“I was so fortunate to have had the opportunity to go to PNG and Lebanon”, reflects Glenys.

“There are so many amazing people I have met, both staff and volunteers. A lot of my friends I can trace back to the Australian Volunteers Program."

Tribute to Glenys Davies

I moved from Melbourne to Perth in the late 80’s. Not knowing a soul, I searched for a possible connection in the returned volunteer network, reaching out to Glenys, an RV who was the WA State Director of the Overseas Service Bureau, AVI’s forerunner.  She welcomed me with open arms, introducing me to colleagues in the international development community which lead to me securing meaningful work.

She was both a friend and a role model to me as I tried to navigate the precarious balance of returning to work with young children.   

Glenys was quietly spoken and gentle but had a steely resilience about her. A truly compassionate person, she was devoted to her family and passionate about her work and the world.

An accomplished physiotherapist, Glenys maintained a lifelong commitment to international volunteering, undertaking a couple of assignments in Lebanon, some 40 years after her first foray as a volunteer in Papua New Guinea in the 1960ss.

A kind and thoughtful person with a very generous spirit, Glenys leaves a significant legacy in her family, friends and colleagues.

For me, she was the kind of ‘good’ person most of us only ever struggle to try to be.

Kathy Townsend
AVI Board Chair
January 2022