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From understanding leadership in emergency service organisations to working the alfalfa fields of Israel on a tractor, Yoke Berry’s life has been as diverse as the stamps in her passport.

W hen natural disasters strike, our emergency service organisations spring into action.

Hundreds of volunteers descend on the streets – many in bright orange uniforms – excited at the prospect of making a difference and protecting the public from whatever disaster they may be facing.

But what happens when the water subsides and the fire is contained? How do you keep people motivated in the times when there are no emergencies, and being a volunteer means simply attending meetings and training sessions?

“It’s in those moments – when there’s nothing – that volunteers need to be engaged and inspired, so that they keep coming back every week,” explains Yoke Berry, project manager for a research project that looked into the retention and engagement of volunteers in emergency service organisations. What we found in our research is that these volunteer organisations are losing a lot of people in that downtime.”

The UOW Faculty of Business-led project, which was funded through a Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre grant and UOW’s Global Challenges Program, aimed to improve the retention and engagement of volunteers in emergency service agencies.

Leadership is a huge problem in the emergency service sector – not everyone is a born leader.

Yoke Berry

At the time the research commenced, around half of the estimated 1,700 volunteers who joined the NSW State Emergency Service each year remained active members 12 months later.

“We know leadership is the prime factor for volunteers leaving,” project leader Associate Professor Michael Jones from UOW’s School of Management, Operations and Marketing said at the time.

“There is a command-and-control leadership culture in these organisations and young people don’t tolerate it – the baby boomer generation is okay with that style but the current generation less so.

“The leadership training they’ve been provided in the past has very much been operational- and task-focused. They learn the technical skills they need – how to hold a fire hose, how to fix a chainsaw – but they don’t learn how to effectively lead people.”

Yoke, a former chemistry academic, was heavily involved in the development of the nine-week Inspire Retain Engage program, which focuses on giving leaders in emergency service organisations the interpersonal skills needed to motivate and support volunteers.

“Leadership is a huge problem in the emergency service sector – not everyone is a born leader,” Yoke explains. “The program we developed was very simple, it was based on a theory of self-determination that can be applied to life in general.”

The ACT Emergency Services Agency visited UOW to discuss the findings of the Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC (BNHCRC) sponsored research into volunteer retention. Credit: Paul Jones

Life in a kibbutz

The discussion and application of self-determination theory during her time as project manager led to some deep thinking and reflection for Yoke.

“Once you start thinking about the basic psychological needs of every person, it just makes sense,” she says. “All of a sudden I had this realisation that I have always needed to belong and it was like my whole life came full circle – everything just made sense.”

Born to a farming family in the Netherlands, Yoke has spent her life helping those in need, finding answers to questions that irked her as a child and making the most of every experience and person she has met along the way.

As a 19 year old Yoke travelled from the Netherlands to Lourdes (France) as a volunteer, helping sick people during their pilgrimage, something she says made a huge impression on her.

“I remember how the faces of the handicapped – and this one person in particular with no arms and no legs – expressed such faith and belief,” she says.

When it was time to return to the Netherlands, she recalls making a decision to cycle back (approximately 1500km) on her bike with no gears, wearing brightly coloured socks, shorts and a bikini top – her hair tied back in plaits and a suitcase bound to her bike with colourful straps.

It was at the age of 21 that Yoke decided to pursue something that had affected her so deeply as a child. She packed up her entire life and moved to Israel.

“The holocaust had such an effect on me. All of the atrocities that I had learnt of as a child – I just couldn’t work out why they happened,” she says. “Moving to Israel was much deeper than just going and working there. The lead up was much heavier than that.

“I had a very deep empathy, and I was searching why. I wanted to see that new country, the country that gained independence after the war. I wanted to see it with my own eyes.

Yoke and friends at a kibbutz in Israel. Credit: Yoke Berry

Life in a kibbutz in the mid-1970s brought a whole new experience that Yoke believes shaped her future life decisions.

“Back then, young people were drawn to the new country that was Israel,” she reminisces. “The kibbutz scene was a very idealistic place for people to live and work, it was all about socialism and had this real attraction about it, especially for young people.

“The whole experience really shaped me as a person; meeting so many people from all walks of life at such a young age and hearing their stories.”

Yoke spent her days working her way up and down an irrigation and alfalfa field on a tractor.

“I love working on the land, I come from a farm and spent my teenage years milking cows before school,” she says. “Learning the discipline of farm life and working on a farm really defines you and gives you a strong connection with the land.”

It was in the kibbutz that Yoke met her Australian husband-to-be, William Berry.

“I spent a few years in Australia at a young age and was always pulled to come back to Australia,” she says. “When I met my husband in the kibbutz, it just fit.”

While her Dutch roots have remained strong, it was Yoke’s connection to Israel that led to her joining a group of ex kibbutzniks to found the Kibbutz Ex Volunteer Association (KEVA) in Wollongong in 2000.

“The group is based on friendship, which we believe is the underlying force of goodwill between societies,” she says. “My husband and I met so many amazing people and made lots of friends in Israel – we have a passion to share that with other people.”

Everything shapes you when you’re young.

Yoke Berry

KEVA’s flagship event is the annual Israeli Film Festival, held at UOW each year. The festival is the first and longest-running film festival of its kind in Australia and each year supports a different charity, while showcasing a lesser-known culture to the wider community.

“I’m proud that I can help contribute to a cultural Israeli experience in our region.”

From kibbutznik to academic

With six languages under her belt – Dutch, English, French, German, Arabic and Hebrew – Yoke believes her life experiences firmly shaped her decision to enter the world of academia and contribute to society in a positive and practical way.

After dabbling in accounting and bookkeeping in the early 1990s and picking up further study in Arabic and Hebrew, Yoke’s desire to make a difference to society was met by her foray into motherhood.

“Becoming a mother gave me a real interest in sustainability,” she says. “When the children were little I became involved in their school, setting up the environment group which back then consisted of composting and recycling envelopes. The kids loved it.

“That interest led me to choose science; I became more involved in studying chemistry and understanding how the natural world worked in a more scientific way.”

Yoke Berry. Credit: Paul Jones

Yoke campaigned against the proposal for a new mobile phone tower in Dapto in the late 1990s.

“It was the first time ever that I sat at a picket line and it had a direct influence on my choice for a PhD a few years later,” she says. “For me, it’s not about justice – it’s about taking opportunities to be of help to your community.”

In 2005 Yoke was awarded a PhD at UOW for her research in protein chemistry and the effect of electromagnetic radiation on protein confirmation, before taking on a postdoctoral position in the School of Chemistry.

On completing her PhD, she took on several teaching roles and started her own business in academic support, while at the same time mentoring international students and providing support to students of non-English backgrounds.

For Yoke, although the stamps on her passport and the people she has met along the way have shaped the person she is today, she credits her time in research as the most creatively stimulating.

“Everything shapes you when you’re young and leads you down a certain path,” she muses. “It has been a privilege for me to patiently help unravel pieces of new knowledge about the natural world, and I wouldn’t have that without my time spent in research.”

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