Debra is a single mother whose experience of domestic violence, family breakdown, and physical and mental illness had left her isolated and cut off from friends and family. She came to Red Cross looking for help to just be able to get out of the house to do her weekly shopping, instead she formed a lasting friendship with volunteer Sue and found inner strength.
"Unfortunately [my marriage] didn't work out due to domestic violence and I had to leave, just for the sake of my health and for my safety," says Debra. "At the time I had twins, who were 14 months old, and I didn't want to see them growing up in a violent situation."
In addition to the breakdown of her family Debra was diagnosed with several illnesses. "I had a lot of health issues, so it was quite a hard time for me, because I had so many operations and I had to spend so much time with the girls," Debra says.
As well as her physical illnesses Debra was diagnosed with anxiety and later when her parents passed away she dropped into a deep depression. "Over the years I just sort of got burnt out type of thing, because I was really trying my best," says Debra. "I had just come to a crunch where I thought, enough is enough and not having a great lot of support from my family, I just found that I had to reach out and get more help."
Although she was being treated for her anxiety and depression Debra was in need of support from a non-judgemental friend who could help her find her way back to into the broader community.
"Sue was a great help and Kerry [the program manager], because they were understanding and they weren't rushing me. They were just basically brightening me up and that's what I needed. I needed someone to stand by my side and say, 'It's okay Deb.'"
The experience has also been rewarding for volunteer Sue who was looking for a opportunity that suited her own personality.
"I started working three days a week and I'd always wanted to do volunteering," says Sue. "Red Cross was my choice because obviously they're a good organisation, and I wanted something where I was able to assist someone who was maybe a bit isolated at home, to access the community. It suited the sort of person I am, that I could form a relationship with someone one-on-one."
The formation of an equal relationship is one of the most important elements of the Red Cross Mates program, which matches people experiencing extreme loneliness and isolation with a volunteer for regular catch ups to reconnect with their community.
Ian Coverdale, National Manager of Social Inclusion programs with Red Cross says it's an important element of recovery from a mental illness. "Programs that match people one-on-one with a volunteer complement other services a person may be receiving. Research shows that social connections support good mental health, and make people more resilient.
"It takes time and resources to recruit the right people and train the volunteers but when the right match is made the results are great," says Ian.
"It was like I was in a movie theatre and life was all around me but I didn't feel I had a life of my own," says Debra. "I felt like meeting Sue and being involved in the Mates program was a little part of me that I could call my own. It brought the best out in me and I had the confidence to reach out to people again and not feel so scared to walk out the front door, because that's how I was becoming."
Not only does Debra now have the confidence to get out of the house but she is ready to help others, signing up to become a Mates volunteer herself.
Sue says that her own life experience has helped her in being a volunteer and that Debra will be the same. "She's been on the other side," says Sue. "So working as a volunteer she'll have a great understanding of where those people are at initially and how hard it is to take that first step and move on."
"If we both get linked into somebody as volunteers we'll get to go on outings together so we'll see each other in a different way," says Sue. "That relationship I've got with her will always remain because I know a lot about her and her life and because we just talk so easily. It's a really nice relationship."
"When I was asked would I like to become a volunteer, my eyes just brightened up," says Debra. "It was something that deep within me I had always wanted to do. What I've learnt, I can share with other people and maybe I can turn their life around or be there for them and just try and be that mate for them."
Photo: Australian Red Cross / Bruce Wardley