Volunteers’ Week from 1 to 12 June prompted me to reflect on three significant periods of volunteering that have shaped and enriched my life, both personally and professionally.
My first taste of volunteering, back in 1984, can only be described as full on! Having completed a Psychology degree at Sheffield University, I set off to spend a year as a Community Service Volunteer at a residential special school near Royston, Cambridgeshire. My role as a live-in house parent and classroom assistant turned out to be the most rewarding and inspirational working year of my life. It convinced me that teaching was for me and secured my place on an SEN PGCE course. So began my career as a secondary school teacher, first in Sheffield, and then in Newcastle upon Tyne.
An opportunity to sow those volunteering seeds in the hearts of a group of sixth form students presented itself in the summer of 2008. After 18 months of fundraising, awareness raising and training, a team of 20 staff and students from Kenton School, Newcastle, set off for Costa Rica for a two week volunteering project. Humbled, beyond words, we worked alongside homeless families to help them build their first, simple, single storey concrete home. We learned to dig sanitation pits, mix cement and lever walls into position, but above all we learnt that those with little by way of material possessions often have the richest lives. I celebrated my 46th birthday in a wooden shack in Costa Rica, serenaded by the family I worked with, and presented with fresh flowers for my hair and a cake bought for me from the local bakery. With such generosity, I was reduced to tears. For many of my students, this volunteering opportunity changed their lives forever, opening doors to new career opportunities in the charity sector and a continued commitment to volunteering as adults.
Good causes: Karen and her students helped build a house for a family in Costa Rica
My third example happened in 2012 after I had left the classroom to join ASDAN as a Regional Manager for the North of England. I didn’t expect the same volunteering opportunities to present themselves in this new role, but I was wrong. I joined the crew of the Jubilee Sailing Trust’s tall ship Lord Nelson as a volunteer, taking advantage of the five days' volunteering leave that ASDAN gives staff who have been at the organisation for more than a year. The Lord Nelson, a 52 berth, purpose built ship is equipped to take 26 disabled crew assisted by 26 able-bodied ‘buddies’. A friend’s 18-year-old daughter, Becca, wheelchair bound by ME, was offered a place on board and asked me to be her buddy. With no sailing experience between us, and more than a little anxious, we boarded the ship at Greenock. By the end of our sailing trip around the west coast of Scotland we had become proficient in rope work, taken our turn on watch, worked in the galley and climbed the rigging. But more than that, we had made new friends and were accepted for who we were and what we could do, rather than what we couldn’t. For Becca it was a turning point; she went on to complete two periods of volunteering in Thailand with Gap Medics and is now in her first year of midwifery training in York, her ME in complete remission.
The Lord Nelson: Karen and Becca sailed around the west coast of Scotland
Volunteering buddies: Karen and Becca on board the Lord Nelson
So, what does my employer have to do with this? The government has recently renewed its pledge to ensure all companies employing over 250 staff offer employees three days' paid leave. Fortunately ASDAN has been offering its employees five days' paid leave for quite some time. ASDAN is committed to playing an active part in the community and values the opportunities volunteering offers for personal development and life-long learning. Young people can gain ASDAN accreditation for their volunteering through our Volunteering Short Course and within the Community Modules in the Certificate of Personal Effectiveness, Personal and Social Development and Personal Development Programmes. We hope that encouraging volunteering at a young age will instil a life-long interest in serving the vulnerable and deprived in our society. Volunteering had as big an impact on my life as it had on those I served – it can be a truly life-changing experience.