My transformative experience volunteering at Garma

19 October 2023

RGF Staffing APEJ Garma Volunteers

Our parent company, RGF Staffing APEJ, offered team members across our brands in Australia the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to head to remote northeast Arnhem Land for an 11-day immersive volunteer experience at Garma Festival. Deborah De Smet, Operations Manager ACT, was chosen to represent ahs hospitality. Here’s a recount of her experience.

I had a fantastic time volunteering at Garma Festival; however, it was a much harder experience than I had anticipated. It was challenging work that tested my limits, and the limits of my clothing with a wardrobe malfunction or two! Not only did I split a pair of pants on day three, but my shoes also gave out on day five, leaving me to line them with a pair of homemade cardboard soles! Nonetheless, the experience was extremely fulfilling, and given the chance, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

The first couple of days were about settling in and getting to know my fellow volunteers from RGF Staffing APEJ. We took in the local culture at the Baku- Larrngay Cultural Centre, and learned about the trade history between Australia and Indonesia predating European colonisation. And all the women gathered for a women’s healing session with several Yolgnu women- that was a beautiful, spiritual moment, and some of the volunteers experienced some intense dreams after the session.

From day three, the real work began. I was assigned to the Corporate VIP team with 5 other volunteers. We were tasked with maintaining 7 sites, building fire pits, sweeping tents, and making the area hospitable for our incoming guests. A job that was as physically demanding as it was rewarding.

We were also responsible for creating gum leaf wreaths for the corporate dinner, and filling corporate bags for the incoming guests, which were then placed on each bed- a challenge whilst trying not to track in red dirt.

As the festival began, we were the welcoming committee for the guests, guiding them through the vast festival grounds, explaining the events, and ensuring a smooth start to their Garma experience. And amidst the chaos, we found time to witness the breathtaking sounds of the yidaki (didgeridoo) resonating across the festival grounds.

Setting up VIP breakfasts at the crack of dawn, serving food from the award-winning restaurant, Hanuman in Darwin, and even arranging a sit-down dinner with 680 guests, the work was non-stop! But it wasn’t all sweat and tears. I had a day to myself to experience the activities and soak in the atmosphere, watch fascinating documentaries, and even dance on the Bungal ground during the closing celebrations.

My time at Garma exposed me to the rich cultural heritage of the Yolgnu people, a proud and peaceful community. It filled me with an overwhelming sense of emotion as I realised that although Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are only 3% of the total population of the country, they are an incredibly powerful force. This immersive experience has deepened my understanding on Aboriginal culture, and I returned to my home in Canberra with a sense of duty to advocate for our First Nations people and share my incredible journey. It is high time we address the wrongs of the past and embrace the rich culture that is integral to our identity as Australians.