Volunteering has long been a tradition in the Hills but it usually starts in adulthood. Not so for a group of dedicated Year 11 students at Oakhill College, Castle Hill, who assist Sydney Hills Special Olympics athletes train at the school’s indoor swimming pool, twice a week. The program, which has been going for the last eight years, was the brainchild of Deputy Principal Bob Munday and this year has 19 participants, the highest number ever.

“They are quiet achievers – they don’t get much of an accolade for it,” says Mr Munday.

Swimming training takes place twice a week during term time, on Mondays and Thursdays, from 6.50pm to 7.50pm.  The volunteers help the coaches to keep the swimmers motivated, to correct their strokes, and to time their laps.  “It’s not so much volunteering, more like a friendship thing,” says Kate Heidegger. “You get a connection with people. The athletes are interested in what you have been doing.  “That makes it easy for you to work with them. They will say: ’I missed working with you, missed seeing your face’.”

“I think you do develop friendships,” agrees James Rankin. “Once you have finished you get a tap on the shoulder to say thanks.”  So enthusiastic a participant was one of this year’s volunteers, Connor McCombe, he took a course at Hornsby Leisure Pool and graduated to being a coach.

On Mondays each volunteer is assigned a lane with four swimmers, while the Thursday program is for younger children and tends to be one on one. Often just getting them to enter the pool in winter is a challenge.

“You give them directions they can take on board – with some of them you physically have to move their limbs,” explains 2018 school captain Alex Murrie.

Talking to these young people makes you realise how much of a two-way street volunteering is. Jack Manning says he could be having a terrible week and working with the SO athletes makes him forget about all the bad things.

“Seeing how the little things make them happy makes you happy too,” says Hannah Skuodas. “I remember a relay event where everyone was standing and clapping one of the girls – she was smiling at the end of it. They are really talented and have a lot of drive.”

With participants like these, the Oakhill College volunteer program looks like going from strength to strength, as well as helping build a stronger community in the Hills. A common refrain amongst the students is: “I would always want to do my bit for the community.”