Day-to-day life is exhausting. For most of us, doing the day job, then completing the mundane trivialities of life is quite enough to see you snoring yourself awake in a pool of dribble, having collapsed in front of the TV just after 9pm. (Just me?) So, the thought of going out of the house again and starting another job – for which you don’t even get paid – feels pretty incomprehensible. Or at least it did. I recently spoke to a group of women who deserve a Jennifer Lawrence style “I volunteer!” scream all of their very own, but refuse to lay claim to it.
The unselfish effort to bring cheer to others will be the beginning of a happier life for ourselves.
Voluntary work. For me, this phrase conjures images of little children staring up at Angelina Jolie whose high profile thankfully forces millions to acknowledge some of the world’s most desperate situations. Whilst Jolie’s work as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador is well documented and, of course, hugely important, the reality of most voluntary work is that it goes quietly unrecognised. Most volunteers fulfil roles that attract a lot less attention and yet these quiet, anonymous people are just as deserving of star status.
Natalie Golding is a law student from Brighton. She volunteers, three hours a week, for the Citizens Advice Bureau and explains that her original reason for doing so was to compliment her degree. She explains, rather self-deprecatingly, “I knew it would look good on my CV. What a typical student thing to say!” 22 year old Natalie talks about the sense of belonging: of gaining experience you just don’t get in other areas of life. “After a few months I realised that I had created a group of lovely colleagues. I enjoyed the work and I gained a sense of satisfaction from both helping clients and gathering more knowledge about a huge range of subjects. Still being relatively young, learning practical knowledge regarding, for example, mortgages and renting definitely comes in quite handy! I feel as though CAB has taught me all of those things I wished I had learnt at school, but didn’t.”
Siobhan Harper is a 29 year old freelance writer from Birmingham. She is a Volunteer Listener for the Samaritans. She makes it sound so simple. “I answer the phones at my local branch to people in distress, as well as answering emails and texts, and talking to people in face to face sessions. I listen to people’s stories and offer support and empathy.” Siobhan had used the Samaritans service herself; she found it a lifeline, and hopes others have the same experience because of her work with them. I can tell I offer the same old cliché when I suggest it must be a draining – and rather depressing – role to take on. “I won’t deny that I hear some heart-breaking stories, but I find my role incredibly fulfilling. Because I’m at the other end of the phone, somebody who needs emotional support can call us and get that support. There’s no feeling quite like making a difference for somebody else.” I bring it down to brass tacks. This is a huge responsibility and surely she deserves to be paid for providing a service that is literally saving lives? “It’s hard in this economy”, she agrees, “As we feel we’re being taken advantage of if we’re not being paid. However, the emotional reward for volunteering is like nothing else.”
I notice a common theme begin to develop. Volunteers don’t tend to see themselves as selfless heroes, fighting a good fight…or any fight. They’re just doing good stuff and feeling great in return.
Georgie Ikin is an 18 year old student from the West Midlands who has already been volunteering for her local talking newspaper for two years. She explains her role. “Every week I read the local paper, choose which articles I’d like to read, and record them. Then they’re sent out to the blind people in my local area. I only do about an hour and a half a week, but it’s improved my confidence massively…plus I’ve met so many new people.” I suggest to Georgie that a lot of people might be surprised that she’s so young and spending her time on something so selfless. She laughs. “The people who receive this really appreciate it; I’d recommend volunteering to anyone…it makes you feel good about yourself – so it’s not really that selfless!”
You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.
60 year old Heather Harry is a retired teacher from Lichfield. She volunteers for a group she describes as her “passion”, Friends2Friends – supporting adults with learning disabilities. They depend on fundraising and volunteers in order to survive. Like so many other much needed groups, they have had their funding cut and need to raise £13,000 per year. Heather sighs, “We need the people in power to see what a vital service we’re providing. It’s frustrating not having the ones who can actually change anything on your side…especially when you see how important this is to vulnerable people on a day-to-day basis.”
More positively, Heather goes on, “They support me as much as I try to support them. (They run a breakfast club once a month and sometimes I help. I’m not much good in the kitchen so am known as the Egg Queen as that’s the only thing I can do unsupervised! They constantly check I have turned the cooker ring off and stuff!) They are such real people. If they don’t like something they say so! I find this so refreshing and a joy to be around. I am in a civil partnership and F2F welcome my partner and always ask how she is.”
There appears to be honesty: a genuine transparency that runs alongside everyone’s volunteering stories. There’s no hidden agenda, no edge…just a true sense of wanting to do something kind and have it make you feel good. Heather tells me, “The unexpected death of my mother left me quite bereft and for the first time in my life without the anchor I had grown up with.” So, I wonder, does volunteering help to fill such a painful void? “Yes. I gain so very much. Volunteering is never totally altruistic – the mutual respect of the members inspires me and I feel a better person for being a part of them.” Natalie seconds this, talking again about her work with the CAB. (I’m staggered to learn she also volunteers for the Samaritans.) “The hours I spend volunteering aren’t about me. I can step away from my own life for a while and purely focus on other people, which I think is a rarity for everyone. I think life can become very trivial sometimes; perhaps I got a bad grade at university or something’s gone wrong at work. Of course these things still matter, but volunteering gives you a sense of perspective that I don’t necessarily think you would gain otherwise. Volunteering has made me a more patient, resilient, and understanding person.”
If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain. If I can ease one life the aching, or cool one pain, or help one fainting robin unto his nest again, I shall not live in vain.
Keely Jones is a 35 year old teacher from Stoke. She volunteered for The Prince’s Trust after they helped her out of homelessness when she was 17. Without a fixed address, she explains that she couldn’t claim benefits, so begging, taking hand-outs from friends or strangers, and doing cash-only jobs was the only way to get fed. She tells her story. “I was walking past the local college one day and this woman, Ange, came up and asked me about what I was/wasn’t doing. Anyway, I joined her group. Six weeks of team building, volunteering, community projects and…a reference! Because of her and what she had been doing with The Prince’s Trust, I managed to get my own council flat, which allowed me to start rebuilding. I continued to help out because…well, doing nothing after what they did for me would feel rubbish.”
It’s easy to feel jaded with the world: to feel that we live in a shallow, self-serving place where everyone is clawing to be part of a get-rich-quick, sleb-driven culture. When I put out the request on Twitter for people to talk to me about volunteering, I had no idea that the response would be so overwhelming. So many people do so much that I didn’t know about, and the learning experience has been (forgive my corniness) utterly humbling. We all like to think that if we needed help, there would be someone willing to give it. The women I spoke to are just a few who are there doing exactly that. And the thing about them is that they are all at once quite ordinary and yet completely extraordinary. The passion they exude when they talk about what they do is almost magical; it is difficult to put into words. They are tiny drops in an ocean of millions donating time and energy from their already chaotic lives. This seems such a huge sacrifice and yet the pay-off appears to be something really rather special.
They just do kind things…it doesn’t sound that difficult, does it?
An online magazine that cares about stuff, laughs about stuff, and wants you to feel good about stuff. Life's too short.