A few months before my 25th birthday, I quit my job. I decided that in order to find out what I really want to do with my life, or perhaps discover what I could do best and then pursue that in a paid capacity, I needed to volunteer. This may seem strange to some, as most people volunteer for more altruistic reasons. I knew I had a lot to offer. But I also knew that I had a lot to learn.
After saving up some money, and arranging to live at home with my parents rent-free, I followed through with this decision. Looking back, I can say that it is a decision that I will never regret.
Having worked with young people in various educational settings, I wanted to volunteer for charities that served children and families in London. Subsequently, I undertook two voluntary internships, one with a local literacy charity, and another with a national children’s charity.
Two particular instances stand out in my mind. Both remind me of the value of volunteering.
On a field visit, a last-minute change meant that a fellow volunteer would not have a partner. My line manager asked me to be her partner for the day, but also made a very specific request: the volunteer needed help reading with a child. I realised that once volunteers establish routines with service-users, it’s easy for them to settle for interactions which may not reflect the true quality of the service on offer. While taking an interest in the young person’s reading habits was important, in this instance, reading with the child was equally if not more important, because it would improve the child’s literacy and create a shared experience that would build trust and confidence on both sides. All it took was a simple question and a suggestion that my partner do the reading. I was surprised that something so simple and so ordinary could change the dynamic between the volunteer and service-user. Following the visit, our evaluation and discussion was more fruitful.
The second experience is a bit more personal. I took on an administrative internship in a dynamic department, and I was unfamiliar with how to conduct myself in such a setting. My aim was to be amicable and stay on top of the tasks I was set. What my line manager made me realise was that while this was good, it did not give a full picture of what I had to offer. Being a natural observer, I was more likely to be present and distant at the same. I needed to bring – in her words – my “full self” to work. This came as such a shock to me, since I prided myself on the being conscientious and hardworking. It made me realise that there is so much more to volunteering than lending a helping hand and doing a good job. Volunteering teaches you more about yourself too.
My year of volunteering is over. Although I have yet to secure full-time paid employment, my experiences have taught me to value the relationships I build with colleagues and how much of myself I invest in my work. Now, I am ready to take the next step… wherever that may be.