Nina's Volunteering Journey
My experience of volunteering? Terrifying! At first. I will use the cliché ‘journey’ because that’s what it was and the outcome was beyond any expectations.
When someone suggested I do some volunteering while I was on sick leave from teaching (stress, anxiety and depression), my response? Honestly? I thought they were out of their minds! Why on earth would I give up my time for nothing? That says quite a lot about the person I was at that point. Sounds rather unpleasant but given the circumstances and the negative situation I was in at work, not really that surprising. My employer had been far from understanding about the series of bereavements I’d had. They were unsupportive and I was told to ‘just get on with it’. Classic.
So volunteering then, I gave it some thought and got in touch with an organisation that had been recommended to me. I was used to working with young people and this charity set out to help young people at risk of offending – right up my street. Initially I heard nothing and felt frustrated – now I’d made up my mind I wanted to get started NOW. Then the same ‘someone’ asked if I knew about a charity that finds opportunities for volunteers - Community Action. No, I hadn’t. I found a number and made an appointment to see an adviser.
Arriving early for the ‘interview’, I was there before the adviser had even turned up, I was taking it seriously and was a bag of nerves. The staff were so kind, helping me to park my car so as not to get a ticket and offering me something to drink. Everyone was so friendly and when the adviser came in, she listened, really listened. She put me at ease and searched for something that might suit me. Other staff chipped in with ideas and I felt as if they really cared about what I needed to do and what I wanted to achieve. When I left the office that day I felt optimistic for the first time in quite a while.
Nothing happened straight away and patience was not a virtue I was in the company of. Some of the organisations I’d been given details for were unresponsive or unavailable and I felt a bit let down. Quite out of the blue I got a phone call from the first organisation I’d approached. After a lengthy chat I was invited to an interview. Bearing in mind just how awful I am in interviews, it took considerable effort to even go along. But when I did, I was greeted with friendliness and kindness. It seemed as if there was a pattern emerging with this whole charity thing.
The interview went relatively well (I wasn’t physically sick!) and I was invited to attend training with a second interview to follow. The training was brilliant! I was with likeminded people, people that wanted to help others to move forward. The trainers were lovely and really cared about the volunteers, their input and their personal experiences. This made the next interview much easier and I answered questions with an unusual confidence. My DBS check came through and I was ready to start.
Next came more waiting while they found a suitable match for me. They identified a young person who was living in rather unusual circumstances and wasn’t attending school. Unfortunately even arranging to meet was difficult and eventually when we did, she was unresponsive. Throughout this I was stressed in a different way and even I’d go as far to say, scared. What if I wasn’t any good at helping people? What if they didn’t like me? The rejection from the young person felt like a bit of a kick but I was assured other matches would come up.
When I got a call to ask if I’d be interested in supporting a ten year old boy who liked football I was even more scared. I was used to teenagers and hate football. To ease me into it, some of the other volunteers arranged to meet us with their young people at a bowling alley. So there were three adults and four children of varying ages – all boys. My ‘match’ had severe ADHD and couldn’t make eye contact or conversation. I was no better. It was horrible. And I was absolutely rubbish at bowling. I felt pathetic. However, I wasn’t doing this for me was I? I soldiered on. As an aside he told me what he thought about teachers, not ever so complimentary.
We arranged to meet each week to do different activities and gradually things started to get better. I still felt nervous but ‘just got on with it’ ironically. He started to come out of his shell and I tried really hard not to be a stuffy football hating person. And it worked. When it came to our last meeting I felt such a sense of sadness. Had I had any impact on this guy? Perhaps because it was gradual I hadn’t noticed him change but he had. And so had I. I wasn’t judgmental anymore, I had learned to listen more and be much more patient. I was feeling better. Then the guilt kicked in – I thought I was doing this to help others, not me! But apparently that’s a side effect of volunteering – feeling good about being good. I suppose the measure of his change was the reaction when I told him what I did for a living – priceless! And that was when I realised I didn’t want to be a teacher any more. He said I was too kind and caring to be a teacher and I had to agree.
When I returned to Community Action it was for a different interview. No longer the rabbit in headlights, almost confident and ready for another challenge. I began volunteering as an adviser there and gave up teaching. I also volunteered at two work clubs and supported ex-offenders leaving prison. My life was completely different. That feel good factor was working its magic and I was getting stronger and apparently, returning to the person I used to be. I felt more appreciated than I had in years and realised I had a lot of good qualities. I met some of the most interesting people with some amazing stories. I went into teaching to help people realise their potential. That didn’t work, volunteering did. The person I was doesn’t exist anymore. I’m glad about that, I don’t think she was all that nice. I don’t think it was her fault entirely, bad circumstances and repeated negativity created a very unhappy person.
In the year that I spent volunteering, I achieved more than I had for the previous seven. I was invited to speak at a national conference – it’s one thing to stand in front of 30 students but quite another with hundreds of adults. I don’t think I’ve shaken so much in my life as when stood up to tell my story. I’ve spoken to lots of groups about the benefits of volunteering and met some really interesting people. Apparently I have changed peoples’ lives.
This ‘journey’ then: volunteering for me was scary but sometimes scary is good. I learned so much about others and myself. Feelings of fear, impatience, frustration, self-doubt, disappointment, lacking confidence, not being good enough, feeling guilty were all part of my experience volunteering. But also feeling happy, accomplished, optimistic, enthusiastic, rewarded and useful are all things that can come from doing something for ‘nothing’.