05 Jan

The Backside of Volunteering

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I was listening to part of the Good Morning Sunday program on Radio 2 last weekend and it was dedicated to volunteering. It was what spurred on my need to write this. It was focussing, while I was listening anyway, on those excellent people who volunteer to help the sick, the elderly, the disabled and disadvantaged. I didn’t hear the entire program, and I’m sure I’ll be told off if I’m wrong, but I suspect that little emphasis was placed on appreciating the work of those who volunteer in every other aspect of social and community living outside of the care industry.

I have spent many years working full time as a volunteer but last Summer I simply stopped. I hung up my halo, turned my back on those I volunteered to help day in, day out, seven days a week, virtually every day of the year. I had had enough. ‘Goodness!’ I hear you say. ‘What an unpleasant piece of work do we have here then?’ Yeah, I know – melodramatic, but there is some truth in that stigma I carry around like a frozen, crinkle-cut on my shoulder. I still feel the guilt and the emptiness of leaving what I once loved.

Since whipping my son out of school eleven years ago when he was eleven years old and home educating him (another story for another day), I realised that to provide a broad spectrum of opportunities for his education he’d need to join clubs and groups outside the home. So, he joined things like Cubs/Scouts, Air Cadets, target shooting and so on and so forth. I soon realised that all of these organisations were run by good folk with a passion to share their time, passion and/or skills with others for no financial reward. My faith in humankind grew commensurately.

That was when I knew that I couldn’t expect others to provide all the external interests for my son if I wasn’t going to do my bit for society as well. But, from that day on I also learned how volunteers in the sport/junior club/general interest sector are among the most ignored, taken for granted and, to be blatantly honest, shat on from a great height by a vast number of end users. And it hurt sometimes, too.

When the media lauds volunteers it generally encompasses all those wonderful folk who give their time to helping others who are sick, elderly, disabled, disadvantaged – those people who deserve the absolute, unconditional love and approbation of all of us. Those who help fundraising and working for charities are also much publicised. However, for those who volunteer their time, their passion and their skills in other aspects of social and community life such as sports clubs, social clubs, parish councils, local landmark maintenance or restoration and many more are simply unseen.

I’m not saying, by any means, that anyone who volunteers their time is doing so for recognition – I’d say to the contrary – but I do believe that these folk are taken entirely for granted and are the invisible cogs that keep most of the country running behind the scenes. These people deserve to be patted on the back, be given a big Thank You from time to time and reminded how valuable they are. It’s only human nature, after all, to know that you are valued, even just a smidgeon.

Ten years ago, I set up a junior sports academy from the ground up, with my husband, and at its peak we were coaching well over 150 children a week, running clubs every day of the week, tournaments, international trips, social events, across our county. It was our passion because we loved our sport and we loved to see the happiness in children’s faces when they participated, improved and did well. But, because no-one would believe that we did it for passion and not for payment we were treated with quite a considerable amount of disdain. Parents would pay for their children to learn and be part of these clubs and, in so doing, believed they were paying us (the coaches) and, as they were paying, they felt they had the right to come and go as they pleased, talk to us as they pleased and generally treat us as the hired help. That their fees were paying for venue hire, disposables, training aids, etc and not us (we didn’t even take expenses until the organisation could afford it) was something that simply was ignored.

Trying to get other parents to see that we were volunteering and that we needed help in volunteering to keep the organisation sustainable became the rod for our backs that finally snapped. We became a victim of our own success but few felt it incumbent on themselves to support us because volunteering for something as inconsequential as a junior sports club was not something many people would consider giving their time up to do.

I’ve heard this same story from so many passionate and gifted folk who have given their time to help young people in sport, in cubs/scouts/cadets as well as local groups such as Neighbourhood Watch and local community committees. There is pretty little kudos in volunteering for something that is unseen and undervalued. There is plenty of kudos in volunteering to work with the elderly, sick and disabled and thank God there is.

So now I only volunteer about eight hours a week for two other organisations and will always do so. If I can’t give my time to help others how can I ever expect to be a full and paid up member of a community? But there is a vast emptiness from not being able to give my time to coaching children any more. I miss those children and parents who did care but I don’t miss being taken for granted, big time. It really is about time that humanity opened its eyes to the fact that the majority of social and community machines are run by indefatigable people who give their time for nothing so that others can share in experiences that they’d not get the opportunity for without those volunteers.

So, think about how your parish council runs on volunteers; how your local sports field will be run by a committee of volunteers; your Neighbourhood Watch group; the litter in your area will likely be picked up by volunteers; most of the sports clubs and social groups your children go to will be run by people who are passionate to share their knowledge and their skill. Let’s face it, even a lot of the police force is made up of volunteers these days. It’s an essential part of society and yet far too much of the volunteering is done by too few folk.

Rant over.

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