On May 21, National Volunteer Week in Australia kicks off, led by the theme “Give a little. Change a lot”. To celebrate the value of volunteering both internationally and locally, we spoke to returned volunteer Leanne Elliott.
Leanne Elliott, Wildlife Conservation Officer at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, is no stranger to volunteering. In fact, it was volunteering that opened up career-changing opportunities to work with wildlife after she’d become disheartened and disconnected from her corporate job.
“I was in a corporate career and I really wasn’t satisfied with where I’d ended up. I liked the working-for-purpose concept, which led me to the Australian Volunteers program and I ended up in Tonga for two years,” she says.
I knew I wanted to work within the environmental sector and ideally, with wildlife, and my first role was with the Waste Management Authority in Tonga. It felt like an odd step from corporate but it had a strong community and environmental focus. It was a great role to learn skills about project management, and community consultation,” she adds.
But this assignment was just the beginning, and after completing her work as a Project Officer, Leanne undertook a second year of volunteering in Tonga.
“This role was with the Civil Society Forum of Tonga, who are a coordinating body for NGOs. The great thing about the role was that it had me working across a range of development issues like women’s rights, health, youth and disability, so I was writing grants and proposals, assisting with communications plans and supporting strategy decisions with smaller NGOs in Tonga. Both assignments were great exposure to a range of development and environmental issues,” Leanne says.
Finally back in Australia, Leanne secured a job with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Australia, supporting the CEO and Board of Directors. However, she was still eager to get closer to wildlife and work on an in-field program. So in 2015, Leanne successfully secured a third Australian Volunteers program assignment, working with Cheetah Conservation Botswana as their Organisational Development Coordinator.
(Leanne with her colleagues at Cheetah Conservation Botswana)
“I learned more there in a year than I did in five years at uni. It was the most phenomenal experience you could ask for. It was what gave me an edge when I came home and started talking to Taronga Zoo,” she says.
Now, one-and-a-half years into her role at the zoo, Leanne looks after population management for exotic species at Taronga’s two locations, and project manages the organisation’s involvement in the Lord Howe Island Rodent Eradication Project.
“I’m responsible for curatorial duties which involves population planning, breeding and animal movements for exotic species and our team is responsible for the delivery and management of conservation partnerships and programs in the field” she says.
Despite a busy full-time job, Leanne continues to volunteer in Australia, involved with The Australian Rhino Project as a Young Australians for Rhinos volunteer, an initiative that aims to establish an insurance population of white rhinos in Australia. She also volunteered with The Sydney Society for Conservation Biology for a year upon returning from Botswana and is now in training with the Rural Fire Service to be a volunteer fire fighter.
(Leanne works with exotic species at Taronga Zoo in Sydney)
Passionate about volunteering both locally and overseas, Leanne has some encouraging words for those who might be unsure about starting their volunteer journey.
“I’m such a big advocate for it. No two assignments are the same. There are big challenges and sacrifices, opportunities and rewards in volunteering. For National Volunteer Week there’s a focus on giving thanks to volunteers for everything they’ve given to these roles, and I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to recognise what volunteering can also unexpectedly give back to you,” Leanne concludes.
(Leanne stands with other volunteers from the NSW Rural Fire Service)