A new arrival’s brief stay at the Bonegilla Migrant Camp more than 50 years ago proved to be the first step on a journey that helped to bring the camp’s history to life for countless migrants and their descendants.
New Zealand-born Lois Salvisberg, who arrived at Bonegilla with her Swiss husband and two small children in 1969, is now about to notch up a milestone of providing her time and knowledge to the Bonegilla Migrant Experience (BME).
Lois has volunteered at BME almost every Monday for about 12 years, and next week she’ll clock up her 300th hour of service for the past year alone. All up, it’s estimated that she’s given 3500 hours of her time to help staff and visitors at the centre.
Her family’s original stay at the camp lasted just 11 days, after which they started new lives in Western Australia. But when they returned to Wodonga years later, she was drawn back to the place where her Australian adventure began and began work as a BME volunteer.
“I gave it a go and just loved it from the start and I enjoy meeting all the people that come through,” she said.
“I like talking to them because they’ve all got a different story and it’s just a lovely place to volunteer.”
Wodonga Council’s Team Leader Bonegilla Migrant Experience, Shelley Knight, said the upcoming milestone was an opportunity to thank all of the site’s volunteers.
“Lois has a special connection to the site, given she was a resident, and that gives her an extra element of understanding,” Shelley said.
“Without our volunteers we wouldn’t be able to operate at the capacity that we do. They’re all essential to the visitor experience and they’re all passionate about the site and the history, and in assisting visitors in so many ways.”
Lois‘s own experience as a migrant at Bonegilla was less challenging than some of those who arrived in earlier years. She found the accommodation to be clean, the food “quite good” and the mix of nationalities very interesting.
And as a skier and bushwalker, she loved North East Victoria – factors that helped to encourage the family to move to Wodonga after living in WA, outback Queensland and Melbourne.
Today, her experiences at Bonegilla all those years ago provide an extra insight when she meets other former residents and their families.
“I enjoy the social side (of volunteering) and I’ve made lots of friends but what I really enjoy is meeting different people and hearing their stories,” she said.
“A lot come from far away and they get quite emotional going back to their first footsteps (in Australia) or understanding what their parents went through and they’re appreciative of us as we help them.”
Like most volunteers, Lois doesn’t seek recognition for her efforts but the rewards continue to come for the former resident-turned-ambassador through the satisfaction she gets from meeting and helping people with indelible connections to Australian immigration history.