The first week of June marks Volunteers’ Week across the UK, a week to say thank you to volunteers for giving up their time and celebrating work which is done by volunteers. I have been volunteering off and since since I was 15 and I personally think that it is one of the most rewarding things that you can do. You’re able to contribute time and skills to help people, often who are vulnerable, as well as gaining new experiences and opportunities, whilst making a huge difference. Not only that, but at some of the toughest times in my life, I have been able to hold on to the fact that I volunteer: it has given me a purpose and something to focus on when everything seemed impossible hard and has also forced me to think about something other than my wonky body or spiralling mental health. Put simply, I genuinely think that volunteering has saved my life.
As a teenager, I volunteered with Barnardo’s, a children’s charity, before being offered a paid position as a play and support worker. It gave me an escape from the reality of exams, applying to university and instead gave me confidence, new friendships and an escape. It was really tough at times, I was working with disabled children and young people, frequently people who were the same age as me and I was having to do intimate personal care, amongst other things. I very quickly learnt the importance of dignity and putting aside disability and treating service users like “normal” people. Most of my friends worked in retail, but I knew that retail wasn’t the job that I wanted to do. I would go to work and be having to restrain children for their own safety, if they became violent, I would have handfuls of my hair pulled out, I was urinated on and had sperm wiped in my hair (I wish I was joking) and I was dealing with medications and tube feeding and complex health conditions like it was nothing. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life, other than being really interested in working with people and this job was my first paddling into the world of supporting young people with additional needs and I loved it.
I stayed in this, now paid, role for six years, working around university and living 200 miles away and gave as many hours as was possible in holidays. It’s only now that I look back, ten years on, do I realise how vital this volunteering position was. When I started, I was deep in the grief process, after losing a friend to suicide. I was struggling with my own health and being bumped around different hospital departments to try and figure out what was happening and I was unhappy at school due to the pressure of exams. My confidence was low but I was welcomed with open arms by a fantastic team of people: little did I know that my initial enquiry about volunteering would see the dark clouds above me start to fade away and bring new light into my life. Not only had I made a difference to people’s lives, I had also made lots of new friends and built my own confidence as well.
Fast forward to September 2018 and I started volunteering with Girl Guiding. In January 2018 I had been offered my dream job, working in children’s social care, but my declining physical health meant that I had to turn it down and instead forge a life on universal credit because I was too ill to work. I sent an enquiry to Girl Guiding to see if there was any volunteering that I could do. Initially this was purely because I was thinking about my CV and was forward planning for when I would be returning to work. The atmosphere in Girl Guiding has made it one of the best places I’ve worked. Everyone is awesome, and I don’t say that lightly. Everybody goes into Girl Guiding with their own story and reasons for volunteering but one thing is certain, you cannot beat the passion and positivity from everyone you meet. The two hours when I was helping to run a Rainbow group (five to seven year old girls) quickly became the highlight of my week. It gave me my smile back when I felt very lost and without a purpose.
My health deteriorated further over 2019 and I had a few months away from volunteering when I was in hospital. I remember being so anxious about returning and potentially having to face difficult questions. But yet again, I was welcomed with open arms and unwavering support. I didn’t face any stigma or discrimination, maybe because the other leaders had their own stuff to contend with too, I don’t know. It makes such a difference working with people who have a shared understanding, there was a mutual respect that we all had stuff going on in our private lives and sometimes we talked about it whilst always focusing on making the sessions as fun as possible for the girls. The diversity of the role means that even if you’re having a bad week, there is still a role for you. You can be sat dealing with the admin side of running a group or be actively playing with the girls and having fun with them.
Without a doubt, choosing to start volunteering as a teenager was one of the best decisions that I could have made. Continuing to volunteer throughout my twenties proved to me such a strong protective factor in my life that I now can’t imagine my life without volunteering in some respect. So whilst volunteers’ week is about saying thank you to volunteers, it seems only right to say “thank you” to all the people who saw the potential in me and allowed me to volunteer in the first place. You’ve made my life better because of it.