This week we have been celebrating Volunteers Week, a chance to say thank you to everyone who volunteers, and remind ourselves how important volunteers are to so many aspects of our community.
In Apex I am constantly reminded of the impact of volunteers because of the way in which the value of volunteering runs through much of what we do, not only in the more traditional approach of people voluntarily helping us in the work we do, but also in the way that we encourage those who use our services to actively volunteer themselves. There is a very good reason for this, and it has nothing to do with reparative justice or pay back. It is because we recognise in the principle of voluntary activity something which is life affirming and important, not only for the recipient but for the volunteer. In short, volunteering brings something out in people which is good and worthwhile, and it improves wellbeing, self-esteem and mental health.
When I reflect on the many examples of this I have observed over the years just within the Apex setting, I am astonished that more attention is not given to promoting volunteering at the highest levels because it is so self-evidently beneficial for the country and the happiness of our population. The range of benefits is vast. I recall a group of steely women service users who had been battered to the point of desperation by life, whose lives were totally transformed after volunteering at a horse sanctuary. I will never forget the statement of one of them who said, I have been abused all my life, but these horses have been abused even worse. For the first time I have an outlet for my love which is not going to judge me or let me down.
Then there was the guy whose very name would send shivers down the back of police across the country who volunteered to take part in some woodland management. Imagine that, giving the mad axe man (sic) an axe! When next I saw him, he was quietly working away by himself, and the supervisor said he was their best worker. I chatted with him, and he told me that all his life people had been pushing him into close proximity with others including everyone who had been trying to ‘help’ him. Group work, employment in people-facing activities, even prison, had all meant that his notorious short temper was always being tested and his intolerance of social conversation pushed to and beyond the limit. Here, he said, I can just be myself and get on with things. I feel valued but no one is stressing me and at last I can feel the space around me.
Now I know that not every volunteer starts from such a needy place, but the common factor is that volunteers are able to do something which benefits others so that gives them a sense of value, they can choose to do the activity in a situation which they find fits their lifestyle and temperament, they can utilise skills they already have or learn new ones and they make new friends which may last a lifetime.
In this Volunteers Week, I hope we can express our appreciation to those who do such a great job volunteering at whatever level, from voluntary Board members to voluntary carers, or my elderly neighbour who every couple of days takes a bin bag and pickers to clear up the litter from the walkways. You are all fabulous and make such a difference to people’s lives. At the same time, I hope that those who make policies and laws, decide financial models or operate regulatory processes and those who decide on funding of community benefit activities will do whatever they can to further promote this life enhancing behaviour. We need to make more opportunities for people to find the right place for them to volunteer and not financially penalise them for doing so. We have to encourage volunteers by ensuring that they can do so in safe, appropriate and meaningful situations, not as cheap alternatives to paid work, but as valued members of teams doing vital things which otherwise might not get done.
Volunteering is great for others and it’s great for you. Thank you if you are already volunteering, get in touch if you are not.