Isobel McKeown explains bluntly why she loves volunteering at parkrun.

“It’s obvious, I don’t need to run!” she said.

The 11-year-old has now volunteered 29 times in the five-kilometre timed event held around the world where people walk, run or hang out.

She is also the youngest speaker at this weekend’s Parkrun Asia Pacific conference in Kingscliff, northern New South Wales.

Isobel is aware of the importance, given that this is the first time in three years that the parkrun ambassadors have been able to meet in person.

Isobel (front row, third from left) is a key part of the parkrun community and speaks at the parkrun Asia-Pacific conference.(Provided)

COVID-19 has shut down parkruns around the world and walkers, runners and volunteers have had to find ways to make sure people aren’t isolated.

There were virtual races, online cooking sessions, chats with celebrities and through it all, the feeling that the bonds of this powerful community could not be broken by the pandemic.

This meant that those who love parkrun, like me, wondered if parkrun was about events or just people’s need to be together.

In fact, three-quarters of parkrunners in Australia surveyed when parkrun reopened said they returned because they felt disconnected from their communities.

Two women run along a path and give two thumbs up.
After COVID, many people wanted to come back to parkrun to reconnect with the communities they missed.(Provided: parkrun)

This survey also revealed other fascinating figures.

What stood out strongly was that the volunteering experience remained extremely positive:

  • 99% of volunteers said they would recommend volunteering to others
  • Nine out of 10 volunteers said they felt happier
  • Eight out of 10 volunteers reported an improvement in their mental health
  • Six out of 10 volunteers reported improvements in their physical health.

And yet, 90% of people who have completed a parkrun never volunteered. This is a challenge for the organization as it is expected to double in size over the next five years.

Parkrun will celebrate the work of thousands of volunteers this weekend and reflect on the often unexpected benefits that “giving back” can bring.

A woman hands a token to another woman after parkrun.
In a parkrun survey, volunteers reported feeling happier and having better physical and mental health.(Provided: parkrun)

Over 140,000 people volunteer at parkrun events in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.

About 200 of them are specialist volunteer ambassadors who support the organization in a range of volunteer roles, such as creating new parkruns and supporting existing ones, taking photos, making videos, sorting e-mails and the translation of documents into different languages.

Parkrun organizers emphasize that volunteering should be done simply for the sake of helping, and what you get out of it becomes the reward.

Two men hug each other and smile as a man and a woman photograph them from behind.
Parkrun connects people all over Australia and around the world.(Provided: parkrun)

I was unprepared when I started volunteering to find out how the simplest thing could be the most satisfying.

“Thank you marshal! they shouted as they passed my patch on the road where I was positioned.

Who knew that starting a Saturday morning by making people smile and say thank you could be an instant mood lift.

Lisa Millar smiles while wearing a parkrun volunteer vest.
Lisa Millar volunteers at her local parkrun in Melbourne.(Provided)

It is also exercise.

Volunteering is often seen as “giving up” on physical activity. But I walked into the park, I chatted, I walked to my position, I gave hundreds of high fives, I jumped, I clapped, I clapped and I’m revenue. Not a bad workout.

It was a huge learning experience for Isobel who was first time director of parkrun, in charge of a Saturday event declared a ‘kids day’, at the age of nine. .

Isobel McKeown holds a sheet of parkrun paper.
Isobel as the manager of parkrun on a “kid care day” when she was nine years old.(Provided)

She honed her skills in her home parkrun at Pakapakanthi in Adelaide.

“One role I really enjoy is being a timekeeper, as I’m quite organized and like to be focused,” she said.

“I remember training once for timekeeping with my brother and my mother. We used the parkrun app and my brother and I made a bunch of finishing tokens, and we had little Legos that ran over a finish line on the kitchen bench.

“We practiced what to do when someone was running away or sneaking up.”

I haven’t tried training with Legos, but I admit my stress levels go up a notch when I’m a timekeeper.

But Isobel wants people to know that anyone can fill up and it’s not the end of the world.

Isobel, 11, smiles at the camera as she strolls through a park.
Isobel McKeown enjoys volunteering because she meets new people.(Provided)

“I saw a marshal send a lot of people in the wrong direction,” Isobel said.

“I saw an inbound token volunteer drop all the tokens in the middle of an event, but everyone helped out and everything went well.”

The other bonus for Isobel is being with adults who aren’t her teachers or her family.

“I see how they do things and I love meeting new people and listening to their conversations,” she said.

Seven years ago this month, Ada Macey started volunteering at Chermside parkrun.

She and another volunteer became friends. This was before Ada started her transition and over the years as she gained confidence as a trans woman, this other volunteer watched over and offered support.

Ada speaks into a megaphone at parkrun as people gather and listen.
Ada Macey is parkrun coordinator in Chermside and Kedron in North Brisbane.(Provided)

That person is now Federal Sports Minister Anika Wells.

“Looking back, what strikes me as a trans woman is that I talk about the importance of visibility and the times when being visible can transform trans people from a concept into a real person,” said Adam said.

“Every time she thinks as sports minister of trans people in sport or inclusion, she has a concrete example of someone who has been through that journey.

“That’s the difference visibility makes,” she added.

“Parkrun is a cross section of the community and these communities deserve to be cherished, developed and encouraged.”

ABC Sport partners with parkrun promote the benefits of physical activity and community involvement.