This week I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity through work to spend a few hours volunteering. To caveat this post immediately: I am not including myself as a volunteer that I am grateful for! I felt like rather a fraud to be feeling good about giving just a few lone hours to charity, when others commit on a much more permanent basis – especially when our allocated activity was gardening; a field I am, shall we say, less than proficient in – but I was glad to be given the opportunity all the same.
Our chosen charity was a school for autistic children in North London, and – having got over the disarming sight of my colleagues in casual, non-work clothes – I was grateful to have my mind broadened about the challenges faced by those with autism: an area I previously knew very little about. Only 20% of the pupils use the spoken word to communicate, and many of the children deal with multiple other conditions too. I was quite taken aback by these facts, and humbled that we were able to provide just a little support; I had never appreciated how much harder everyday life can be for these individuals and their families.
The school is available to children up to 19 years old, and aims to be ‘Ambitious about Autism’, providing each child with every opportunity to ultimately take on some sort of paid or unpaid work, and to live as fulfilling an adult life as possible, despite the additional obstacles they may face. Each child is given the chance to try out various different vocations, one of these being horticulture, and this is where myself and my colleagues put our hours to (hopefully) good use: helping to prepare an area of land for use in gardening lessons.
Several hours of weeding and chopping brambles later, I learnt that my fitness definitely needs some work, but thanks to teamwork and the additional skills of many of my colleagues, we made a noticeable difference to the area. What made me sad is that the school relies on groups like us – starry eyed office workers on an away day from their desk jobs – to complete tasks like this – and I wished that we could have done more.
It got me thinking about all those wonderful people who give their precious time to charity on a regular basis, and made me think that I really must find a way of giving my time too. How many different charities and organisations up and down the country rely on volunteers to help them operate? In a world where money is always tight, I’m sure there are a great many. But there’s a reason people give their time: helping others feels good. Thinking of others less fortunate than yourself helps put your own life in perspective. And why shouldn’t volunteering be totally selfless?! If it helps others, why the heck shouldn’t you feel good about doing it?! Of the people I know who do volunteer their time for charity, a hundred percent of them seem to get something from it too.
My father volunteers two days a week at the Marie Curie hospice that cared for my mother; something that I could never do and that I am so proud of him for. Whilst this is definitely a case of ‘giving something back’ in exchange for the fantastic care my family received there, it also provides Dad, who is self-employed, with a structure to his week, a way of socialising with others and feeling like he’s made a difference. In palliative care, a squeeze of the hand, a smile or a joke can make all the difference to someone’s day. My Dad helps an old lady smile, lends somebody a ear if they need to talk, cuts up a gentleman’s food if he isn’t able to eat alone. He officially volunteers as a kitchen assistant, but this role is much, much more.
A friend from work has volunteered at the Cancer Research MoonWalk for many years, and you only have to look at her face when she talks about it to know how much she takes from the experience. Anne looks forward to the event each year, to seeing her friends and to experiencing the electric atmosphere of solidarity and hope that is apparent throughout the night. I saw just how much of a difference people like Anne make in a Facebook post by a lady who had been helped by Anne when she was feeling like she just couldn’t make it to the finish line. She was so grateful to have had someone throw her arm around her shoulder and tell her she could do it. What a fantastic thing to be part of.
My friend Becci, who recently got married, volunteers at a charity for homeless and vulnerable people in Cardiff. I thought it was absolutely amazing that Becci and Andy chose to involve some of the individuals who receive support from the charity in their wedding, and testament to how passionate Becci is about her volunteering work there. The charity runs a choir that helps to raise funds, and they sung during the signing of the register in church. Hearing these individuals, who had clearly not been dealt the fairest hand in life, belt out ‘Something Inside So Strong’ with such passion and feeling was extremely emotional.
I know I have lots of other friends who also give their time to charity – people who don’t necessarily talk about it but just make it a part of their every day life – and I have no intention of discrediting the work anybody does by not mentioning them in this post. To anybody who volunteers, whatever you do and however often you do it: thank you. Time is one of the most precious gifts that you can give, and I’m inspired and humbled by all of you.