Each fortnight for the last four years, Racheal Higgins – a proud Torres Strait Island woman – has volunteered with the Orange Sky team to provide free washing and shower services to vulnerable members of the Brisbane community who are doing it tough.

As well as working and studying full time, Racheal has undertaken 73 shifts, and given up 148 hours of her spare time to help positively connect the community. She has a particular interest in connecting with vulnerable members of the Indigenous community.

Over the four years since volunteering, Racheal has influenced members of her immediate family to volunteer alongside her. Racheal (49), her Mum Kristina (68), daughter Lily (23) and son Zane (24) make up three generations of one family who come together at Musgrave Park (in Brisbane) to connect with a very special place in their hearts.

We sat down and had a chat with Racheal about all things Orange Sky, the importance of non-judgmental conversation, and what Reconciliation Week means to her…

What’s your role with Orange Sky?
I’m a volunteer Team Leader with Orange Sky’s shower van and head out to Musgrave Park every Tuesday evening. We welcome any vulnerable people who are doing it tough to come along for a chat and shower. All of the Orange Sky volunteers feel that most importantly, it’s about the connection we make that says to our friends on the street, “Hey I see you, I respect you, and you deserve the dignity of using the services that we’re offering.”

Why is Musgrave Park significant to you?
Musgrave Park is a place of family. I grew up in West End in the 70s, and would regularly take walks through the park and would often see my Dad. A lot of my Dad’s extended family visited there, and for me it was like a second home. It was where everyone came together and felt a sense of belonging and camaraderie. My Dad came from the Torres Strait to find work in the city and found it quite difficult adapting to the western ways of living in the city. There was an expectation about how Australians should be and it was the dominant narrative at the time. Like many others, he struggled with this, developed addiction issues, and as a result, became homeless and spent time in Musgrave Park.

What kind of people do you meet on shift?
Generally we have about 20 people who come along to each shift and utilise our shower or washing machine services. There are a few regulars who we have built up a good rapport with over time. At Orange Sky, we prefer to call people we meet ‘friends’ as it portrays respect and equality within our relationship rather than us just being a service provider.

Each week I bring along my portable speaker as a drawcard and I use that as a way to connect with people through a love of music. I usually play country music to encourage some of the First Nation’s friends to come and chat with me. I find that I can relate to them and for that reason particularly seek them out to make a connection. I play a lot of the songs that my Dad listened to, as it reminds me of him, such as Charley Pride, Tammy Wynette and Roy Oribison. But some of the locals also request ABBA and Grease! We often have a bit of a dance and a singalong. It’s always a lot of fun.

How do some of the stories from Indigenous friends differ?
Some of the stories of the Indigenous Friends and how they came to be homeless can be difficult to hear. It is common to hear about the effects of colonisation and intergenerational trauma suffered that have contributed to their personal situations. In particular, one man I met became very upset after sharing his story with me. All I could do was listen and empathise.

Making an impact on someone through genuine connection by volunteering each week is very meaningful to me. Every time I leave the shift, I hope that I’ve made a positive contribution to somebody’s day. I find it really rewarding whether it’s talking, listening, or playing a favourite song, I really look forward to it each week.

Your kids also volunteer with you, how did that come about?
I always try to be non-judgmental and to accept people as they are and have instilled this value into my children, as it was instilled in me from my own upbringing. My mixed race European/Indigenous family were very forward for the time as my grandparents welcomed and accepted everybody and I followed by example.

My youngest daughter Lily, started volunteering at Orange Sky alongside me from the age of 19. My son Zane was interested in our stories and wanted to check it out too, and Mum has now joined us as well. Initially I started on a different shift, but was keen to join the Musgrave Park shift as I have a connection to it through my Dad and other family members who have frequented there over the years.

The friends on shift are sometimes surprised that we are all family as we all look quite different but one of the Friends calls me Mum now too, which shows how we have made a close connection. It’s great that all of us are now on the same shift as we use this time to catch up as well as chat to friends – we’re all like a big family!

Generally it might be hard to ‘switch off’ after a more difficult conversation on shift and being exposed to sad stories, but it’s great to have the support of my Mum and kids who get to share the experience with me. It’s a unique situation to be able to share my volunteer experience with my family in that way and have an opportunity to debrief.

What do you think it does for your kids in particular?
I think it opens up a whole new perspective on life really. They can see and hear firsthand how other people live, and can reflect on their own lives in a meaningful way. Volunteering opens up a whole new world and view on humanity.

What does Reconciliation Week mean to you?
I try to be a part of reconciliation every day. I think Australians as a whole should speak up about injustices and show support for Indigenous people by standing beside them. It’s about trying to make a difference in the community and bringing all of the cultures together, particularly First Nations. It’s more than just a week, and it’s more than just words.

What do you think it takes to be an Orange Sky volunteer?
I think good communication skills are essential as you need to listen without judgement. It sounds simple, but it can actually be quite difficult for some people. But mostly I think you need to be authentic, show your true self. By doing this, you invite people to trust you and feel comfortable to open up to you and share their stories.

I would say to people considering volunteering with this service, that it’s a rewarding and life changing experience where you meet people and can open yourself up to new and interesting experiences. I highly encourage anyone to join particularly if you have the capacity to do that at this point in your life.

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