Time to volunteer

There are so many ways you can make a difference. Lisa Phillips spoke to women who are giving their time and skills to make their community a better place

Helping people in crisis

Rosemarie Rodgers is a Community Link Worker with the Easter Team, a local charity set up to help people in crisis with food parcels, regular hot meals and essentials like gas and electricity

Rosemarie has been involved with the charity for nearly 15 years, and today gives one morning a week to go into the Easter Team office and respond to client calls for help.

“I felt there was so much need in the world that, as a Christian, I wanted to get out of the church building and get involved in something which would make a positive difference in people’s lives,” she says. “From reading the Bible, it seems to me that God says again and again that he has a special place in his heart for the poor, and people at a disadvantage in society.”

Although the Easter Team primarily focuses on the physical needs of local people, Rosemarie has found that her role goes much deeper. Many of the people she meets want to talk – from the woman worried about her teenage son in trouble with the police, and the man victimised by boys in his neighbourhood, to the man who has kicked his drug habit and wants to share his joy over his new baby son.

“I never stop feeling that it is an amazing privilege when people share their worries, problems and personal details about their lives,” says Rosemarie. “It’s very easy to put people in boxes and write them off as drug addicts, homeless, or mums who can’t control their children. Helping with the Easter Team has made me realise that when we get to know people as individuals, there is usually a lot more to it, and they are very special to God.”

Saving our heritage

Diane Wills is a volunteer with The Weald & Downland Museum, famous for its range of centuries-old traditional homes and workplaces which have been rescued from destruction and re-erected on the Sussex site. Its’ aim – mainly through the work of 500-plus volunteers – is to help visitors to appreciate the rich heritage of historic buildings in the region.

Diane has been working at the museum for more than six years, averaging 15-20 hours a week. Volunteer roles at the museum are diverse. There are stewards who man each building and talk to visitors as they come in, a working mill where flour is milled and then sold in the shop, a stable with shire horses to tend, medieval gardens to be maintained, and educational volunteers to do workshops with school parties.

In addition, the volunteers restore donated objects, look after the archives, man the gift shop and dress up as Tudor men and women washing, cooking and working just as they would have done hundreds of years ago.

Diane is a retired teacher and used to bring her junior-school classes on trips to the museum. “I’m trying to give something back by volunteering,” she says. “I particularly love being in the mill, and I love the Victorian cottages because my grandfather was a miller in the region.

“The person who built the cottage was a baker, also living in Sussex. When the children visit, I show them a photo of my grandfather and say that he and the baker may have known each other. They’re always much more interested when they can make a connection.”

These days, Diane works mainly in the shop, but the work, she says, is just as rewarding. “I love meeting and talking with so many people – it keeps the brain active.”

Counselling young people

Tina Wort is involved in the work of Oasis and The Haven, two Crawley and Horsham-based centres focused on crisis pregnancy and manned by volunteers from local churches

It was a Sunday morning talk on abortion and the law, and an awareness of soaring teenage pregnancy rates in Crawley that led Tina to get involved. The Haven and Oasis hold drop-in sessions offering support and a listening ear, giving time and space for people to explore their anxieties and feelings about an unexpected pregnancy.

In addition, the charity offers support and counselling to women who have had abortions, collects and distributes free clothing and baby equipment, and goes into local schools to explore the whole issue of unplanned pregnancy and the development of a baby during pregnancy with 14-18 year olds.

Tina has been volunteering for The Haven for just over a year, and gives around 3-6 hours a week to the project. She is part of the management team, has trained as a counsellor, and goes into schools to help with lessons.

“One of the most rewarding aspects is when we do The Lifeline in schools and see the faces of the young people when they see from the models how the baby grows so quickly and is fully formed by around 12 weeks,” says Tina.

“I have learned so much about abortion law, about foetal development and, through the counselling course, how to help people and be a good listener. I think that whatever training or experience I have been through in schools, or at the drop-in, it has touched my heart and given me compassion for those hurting, and a passion to help young people think about these very important issues.”

Caring for animals

Wendy Shear has worked for the RSPCA for an impressive 35 years. Originally a paid employee of the famous animal charity, working as a telephonist and taking calls from the public, she is now branch chair in the Midlands, working closely with the administrator and treasurer to deal with animal welfare issues in the region.

One of Wendy’s key roles is raising funds for the charity, mainly through the three RSPCA shops in the area. Although she’s on call at any time, her official hours amount to around eight each week.

“I love animals. I’ve always loved wildlife. Nothing’s more enjoyable than when an animal gets better to go and release it into the wild. It’s just lovely.

“When I was Communications Controller, we almost classed ourselves as the Samaritans to the animal kingdom. We’d get someone on the telephone who was desperately worried about a cruelty case or an injured creature, and we just had to talk that person through the situation before getting our inspectors to go and sort it all out. To see an animal in the most dire state, as a result of cruelty, brought back to health and found a new home gives me such joy.”

Wendy’s charitable activity goes beyond the RSPCA. She’s also involved with Guide Dogs for the Blind, and a charity that helps women in third world countries called Soroptimist International.

“There are so many people that could give of their time. I haven’t got much money, but I’ve got my hands. And I can give of my time.”

What could you offer?

Whatever your interest, there’s bound to be an outlet for it!

Around 22 million adults volunteer in the UK each year, clocking up a massive 90 million hours of voluntary work every week. And this number is on the up. As the economy declines, unemployment increases, and so the number of volunteers looking to beef up their CV’s with new skills and experience grows in turn. In addition, as people live longer and enjoy a better quality of life than in the past, more and more older people are signing up to give something back to their communities.

Mike Nicholls, co-ordinator of older people services for the Crawley Council of Voluntary Service, believes that volunteering is as good for the volunteer as it is for the recipient. “For many people, volunteering can be a personal journey from breakdown to recovery, or a feeling of uselessness to usefulness,” he says. “It can give people an intense sense of satisfaction that they’ve made a difference - that they’re helping people or doing something.

“This can be particularly true for people who in their daily job are dealing with money, but in their voluntary life are helping at a hospice, or doing something that is people-focused. I think for a lot of Christian people, it can give a perspective of the kingdom as distinct from the church. They’re doing something in the community to build the kingdom of God, but it’s not within a church organisation.
“And I think a lot of people get a sense of social inclusion from voluntary opportunities. Older people love the fact that they’re meeting other people, seeing a human face, and entering into conversation.”

Volunteering doesn’t have to be an onerous commitment. Some volunteers sign up for just a few hours a month, while others give as much as 20-30 hours per week. Increasing numbers of people are in it for short periods of time, others for the long-term.

Mike has noted a growing interest, particularly in administrative, office-based roles, and the more popular areas centred around animals, children and the sick. Harder to find are the treasurers and trustees – people willing to take on the legal side of things – and volunteers to work with those dubbed “problem people”.

Most agencies will ease a new volunteer in gently – giving them a taster of the work without piling on the responsibility too soon - and new volunteer prospects are rearing their heads all the time. There are more inter-generational opportunites for instance – young people helping the older generation to use their mobile phones, and retirees teaching twenty-somethings to cook on a budget.

The only thing that can stop us from making a difference where we are, it seems, is time and inclination. Perhaps it’s time to consider what we have to offer. The impact may be farther reaching than we think. “The Kingdom is built on voluntary commitment and activity,” says Mike. “Ultimately, the whole Christian message is about voluntary commitment to God. Eternity will be based on what we have voluntarily chosen to do.”

Take it further

Contact the following organisations  for details of opportunities

Volunteering England
Tel: 0845 305 6979
Tel: 020 7250 5700

Tel: 0845 456 1668

CSV (Community Service Volunteers)
Tel: 020 7278 6601