“There are lots of charities out there, lots of deserving people, but I feel for the vulnerability of children. As I grew to learn more about Kids First, the focus on the welfare of children really became a sticky factor for me.

“My mum volunteered first. Then one day she said to me: ‘You should come and volunteer with me!’. Initially I was volunteering, then I worked as the manager, then left to go back into my profession. Now I’m back as a volunteer again.”

Nicole noticed very early on that the shop is more than just retail transactions and perfunctory pleasantries.

“The shop becomes part of people’s lives, their routine. It’s very homely, a place where anyone can feel comfortable to come in and have a browse. Everyone is welcome, which is one of the special things about the space.

“It's not all about buying things. There are three ladies that used to work together, and they’ve made Wednesday their ‘Kids First Op Shop Day.’ They come in, have a rummage and a proper catchup, then go next door for a coffee. They mightn’t make a purchase, but that doesn’t matter. This is our own little community, a friendly, warm space.  In this day and age, that’s so very special.”

People from all walks of life come together, making the op shop a place to meet people you might otherwise not, shared Nicole.

“Our volunteers span so many age groups, from school kids to grandmas and everyone in between. I worked with Betty and Marge who were from the original founding group. They were in their eighties then and so great to work with.

“One day, a girl of fifteen appeared in the shop and said: ‘I’d like to volunteer!’. She did join us, and was always on time with this incredible zest for life. There aren’t many young people her age who want to volunteer in an op shop. We adored having her.

“This space connects people from all backgrounds, ages, circumstances. I think that's lovely. There’s still people coming to the shop who were coming when I first started volunteering, so more than ten years ago. They’re still regulars. I think that says something about the shop’s place in our community.”

Nicole saw time and time again, the op shop space creating community connections.

“People who come to the op shop, perhaps they feel disconnected from other parts of society, or don't have that many friends or family. Our space creates an atmosphere where they can come in and be a part of something. It’s not just shopping like other stores, there’s a social aspect to visiting an op shop, it’s a community hub of sorts. We remember our customers. We greet them by name, and them us.

“That’s one of the unexpected positives from our space. It’s a special place where you have the opportunity to show kindness without expectation, unlike a traditional retail space, where you’re often treated like a number and you feel pressured to buy things and get out.

“It's such an easy and small thing to do to help someone who's perhaps having a hard time in their life. Stop, smile, be present, and listen to them sharing with you.  If you already have safe connections in your life, if you're safe and happy, you forget how important those small kindnesses are, you take them for granted.”

Throughout her time volunteering, Nicole learned skills that served her inside, and outside of her work life.

“What I learned was more around the soft skills of empathy and teamwork, and being kind, connecting with all the different kinds of people in your community.  Building rapport and active listening.

“I think the experiences I’ve had helped to give me a different view of the world, and an appreciation for the issues that people have in their lives. Those kinds of experiences can soften you. If you're just in your own bubble, you miss out. It’s a valuable opportunity to have, to broaden your mind and open your heart.”

When asked what she’d say to anyone considering volunteering with Kids First, Nicole didn’t miss a beat:

“It's a fantastic way of being connected to your community, while helping to raise funds for an amazing organisation doing incredible things for children in need. There's nothing to lose. Have a go! And you know what? You'll be rewarded in more ways than you can imagine.”

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