Improving the lives of the less privileged is a top priority for Jo Spence. The Greatest Need Project is doing the same, by supporting patients at Western Health and providing essential items that many of us take for granted.
DURING working hours, Jo Spence oversees the efforts of 950 community-minded citizens and students.
But even when she clocks off as Western Health’s Community Engagement and Volunteers Manager, her commitment to social justice and inclusion does not.
“The biggest thing that I struggle with is injustice,” Ms Spence says. “That’s the fire in my belly, that’s what motivates me.”
That compassion has inspired her professional work over several decades – including the past nine years leading Western Health’s volunteer and school partnership programs.
Last year, Ms Spence was honoured by the Australasian Association for Managers of Volunteers, earning their 2017 Volunteer Manager Award of Excellence title.
But what many don’t know about this mum-of-two, step mum of two, and ‘Nannie Jo’ to three, is that she also offers herself as a volunteer – on top of her demanding career.
Ms Spence enrolled in a mentoring program last year, and has been paired with a 12-year-old girl who has suffered a very traumatic childhood.
Once every one or two weeks, Ms Spence spends one-on-one time with *Annie. Their visits are rewarding for Ms Spence – and offer a glimpse into a better world for her vulnerable charge.
“She’s led a bit of a life, but she loves the library,” Ms Spence says. “She was shrieking with absolute joy when I first took her to the public library… she’d never been to one before.”
Ms Spence says she is trying to teach Annie that “life is about choices”.
“She is a very smart girl so I want her to know she can get herself educated and make a better life for herself.”
Ms Spence says she learnt the importance of strong role models – and community spirit – as a young child, growing up in a big family in a small farming community in NSW.
Her parents, Ted and Denise, were both very involved within their community, volunteering for everything from judging cakes and dogs at the local show, to playing team sports, sitting on committees and leading Brownies.
“I also had some other fantastic role models in my life too, some really strong women,” Ms Spence says. “So I know the impact that external mentors can have.”
Ms Spence’s career, while diverse, has always focused on helping others. Her roles have included running a community transport program, home and community care service, as well as a swimming program for people with special needs. She was also behind Victoria’s first female-only swim program for women, introduced at a metropolitan council.
“This all comes down to the belief system that I have about inclusiveness,” says Ms Spence, who has also completed her Professional Counselling Diploma. “All of the community should be able to have access to everything.”
In the almost nine years Ms Spence has been managing Western Health’s volunteers program, the number of volunteers has soared from 200 to 650, making it the biggest volunteer program in Melbourne. She has also created a schools partnership program, which now involves 300 students.
What does Ms Spence love most about working with volunteers?
“They all have a story. You have to sometimes dig a bit, but you always find a story,” she says. “I always find that you learn something about either them or yourself in every interaction.”
The Greatest Need Project is a story-sharing website with two major goals – to help patients facing significant hardship and disadvantage, and to facilitate research, at Western Health.
As a staff member, Jo Spence is sharing her story in bid to help those at Western Health who need it most.
By making a donation on Jo’s behalf – and sharing her story on social media – you are making a difference too. Thank you.