Being there for a chat, making tea, sending emails, raising cash & lending support, the people who help for free
As Volunteer Week gets under way across Northern Ireland, Kerry McKittrick finds out why some men and women give up their time to make a real difference to the lives of others
We'd all love to have the time to do a bit more to help others, or to try and improve ourselves in some way. While some might choose going back to the classroom to brush up on their skills, for many, one way of developing their potential and helping out society at the same time is through volunteering.
This week marks the 30th anniversary of Volunteer Week, with a range of events celebrating volunteers from across Northern Ireland.
In Northern Ireland there are well over half a million volunteers – both formal and informal – and the average volunteer will give up around 14 hours of their spare time each month to help others.
The majority of volunteers are women and they are usually aged between 16-24 or 35-49.
In terms of the average hourly wage in Northern Ireland, the services these volunteers provide are worth more than £500m each year to our economy.
There are hundreds of ways to volunteer – from marshalling an event, reading to the blind, visiting a sick or elderly person, or fostering or spending time with homeless animals, to gardening at a National Trust property or spending time with young people.
We speak to four people who have chosen to give up their time in very different ways.
Abigail: ‘Sharing cuppa and a chat is important’
Abigail Lennox (20) is studying biology at Belfast Metropolitan College and working as a recruitment support administrator. She volunteers at Macmillan Cancer Care and lives in Belfast. She says:
“I decided to start volunteering after Christmas last year. Rachel from Macmillan Cancer Care was starting up a cluster of volunteers in Belfast, so the timing was perfect.
I'm going to study biomedical sciences at Queen's next year and at some point I would like to be involved in cancer research. I decided I wanted to do something good with my extra time and volunteering isn't bad for the CV either.
I wanted to volunteer directly with people, either in their homes or in hospitals. The cluster run by Macmillan Cancer Care was perfect for me.
I had an induction in April of last year and did a couple of other courses through Macmillan, about cancer and its treatment, loss and bereavement, and listening and responding.
I started visiting Ruby Donnan, a lady in Newtownards who was recovering from cancer. I would get the bus up and do some housework for her — cleaning the bathroom, doing the floors and changing the bed. Also, I was there for a cup of tea and a chat. That's one of the most important aspects of what I do. Some people might not like to admit it, but they will want the company.
After nine months, the first lady didn’t need me anymore. I've now been volunteering with a second lady — Myrna Reid — for just over a month and I really enjoy what I do — it's just for an hour-and-a-half a week and Myrna and I get along really well. We’re matched according to what Myrna needs and the things I’m able to do for her. I couldn't see myself giving it up any time soon. People are surprised when they find out what I do, and proud of it. I'm actually being brought to London next week, as I'm being given an award — Young Cancer Champion.
It can be quite emotional, as I work with people who are very ill and vulnerable.
I try not to dwell on the bad things. I just focus on the positive side of the work.”
Cassie: ‘I love communicating with deaf people’
Cassie Campbell (26) works for the Northern Ireland Deaf Youth Association and lives in Belfast. She volunteers at the National Deaf Children’s Society. She says:
“I'm the youth worker in charge at the Northern Ireland Deaf Youth Association and I have a level three sign language qualification.
Years ago, when I was student, I worked in a nightclub and I would see deaf young people come in. I saw them trying to order drinks and communicate and they did very well making themselves understood. I felt a little nervous and wrong-footed dealing with them and realised that the shortcomings were mine — not theirs. I thought that I should change that and went off to do a sign language course. I wanted to get more experience and learn how to communicate with deaf people. It was just an interest that I developed and worked on by myself.
My tutor at college told me about the National Deaf Children's Society. He told me it would be the perfect place to meet deaf young people. At that point I was already a youth worker, but that was my job — I wanted to do this in my own time, so I applied to be a volunteer.
I've had amazing opportunities with both the National Deaf Children's Society and the Northern Ireland Deaf Youth Association. I work with children of all ages up to the age of 16 and they might have additional needs, such as blindness, ADHD or learning difficulties.
The atmosphere you have with these organisations is amazing. These young people are from all over Northern Ireland and the UK and they don't get to interact with each other very often.
I'm able to be there and support and facilitate their gatherings, and the energy they have is unbelievable. You can see them learning from each other and you're helping them meet each other and have a better sense of identity as a group.
I always wanted to be a youth worker and went to university to study it. I work for the Northern Ireland Deaf Youth Association, but volunteer for the National Deaf Children's Society because it's a different kind of opportunity.
You get a huge amount of training and support from them and I've been all over the UK with them. There are so many people in the UK who need this organisation — it’s just impossible to staff it, which is why volunteers are so crucial.
When you see the young people take part in workshops it's 100% worth it, because they enjoy themselves so much. You meet both deaf young people and volunteers who are really keen to get in there and get involved.”
David: ‘Giro d’Italia was a great opportunity’
David Livingstone (61) lives in Richhill with his wife, Phyllis, and they have two daughters, Andrea (24) and Victoria (27). David|volunteers at the Armagh Sports Forum and multiple sclerosis|support group. He says:
“I worked as a civil servant and retired 17 years ago on medical grounds — I was incapacitated for a long time after a motorcycle crash. I'm not an invalid, but there are still times when I lose power in my hands because of nerve damage. I've seen volunteering from both sides, as people have helped me out over the years too.
I started volunteering at cycling events years ago. I got involved in a local cycling club and started marshalling, timekeeping and organising events. Through that I ended up on the Armagh Sports Forum and they elected me chairman four years ago.
It's something that I enjoy doing and I feel that I can give something back. I volunteer in things that I'm physically capable of doing. That's how I got involved in the Giro d'Italia — I did crowd control on the first day during the time trials at Stormont. It was my job to keep the crowd back from the road. You have a bit of banter going with people at the roadside and it's important to remember that you're acting as an ambassador for Northern Ireland with visitors.
I'm also on the committee of my local multiple sclerosis support group. Six years ago a close family friend was diagnosed with MS. He said he would only join the support group if I would go with him, even though I don't suffer from MS.
I stayed on because I have experience on committees and they've just asked me to be the vice-chairperson. The chairperson herself has MS and sometimes can't make it, so I chair the meetings for her.
Most of my time volunteering is spent at a computer sending emails and organising things. I could spend 15–20 hours a week doing it. I can't commit myself to everything and there are times that I do suffer and can't take part too.”
Karen: ‘It fits perfectly around job and family’
Karen Keers (51) is a part-time civil servant. She lives in Bangor with her husband David and they have three children, Ryan (27), Ashleigh (23) and Olivia (15). She volunteers at the NSPCC young witness support. She says:
“It all started 10 years ago — there were some issues with a young person in my family that left me wondering about the standing of young people within the law.
I took myself off to Queen's University and spent three years doing a full-time law degree. It was quite tough as my youngest Olivia was only five at the time and I was also working part-time. It was something I had always wanted to do but when I was 18 my family emigrated to South Africa and and I went with them, so university had fallen by the wayside.
After I graduated I spent four years volunteering with NIACRO, mentoring young offenders and those likely to offend.
One day I saw and advert in the paper for the NSPCC asking for young witness supporter volunteers.
They were asking for legal experience and experience with young people and the timing was right as I had just finished mentoring a young person. If it was a job it would have been the perfect one for me but I decided to go to the other side of the counter. It just seemed to be a natural time for me to use my experience as a natural capacity.
At the moment we support any young person under the age of 18 who has to give evidence in a court.
The young person can be the injured party, they can be a witness to something like a car accident or assault or they can come from a home where there has been some kind of violence.
The service was only originally available in the Crown Court but it's now been rolled out to every court.
We work with a social worker or children's services practitioner and we get to know the young person before the trial with home visits. Court is a very unnatural environment and you really have to get to know that young person so they don't see you as another social worker or member of a legal team. It makes them feel more relaxed that you're not this stranger who shows up on the day.
My role is to provide them with information and companionship. I let them know what stage the trial is at and how long they might have to wait to give evidence. There will be two volunteers working with the young person. One is a liaison and the other is more of a companion.
I can fit in my volunteering around my part-time job and the family; we get two weeks’ notice when we get called and each case will take between one and three days of court.
I love what I do with a passion. I get to meet amazing young people and their families and help them through what can be a bit of an ordeal. To be honest a lot of it can be waiting around, but because we know how the court works we can advise and show them how the court will look and how the video link works. You chat about school, music and even things like Manga cartoons. It's amazing what you can find to talk about but you listen to what they say and you find a little hook that you can talk to them about.
There wouldn't be the resources to fund this service which is why volunteers are so important. I think that for the family knowing you're a volunteer puts them at ease as you're not a formal officer of the court and you're giving your time for them.”
How you can get involved
- There are dozens of charities and good causes around Northern Ireland constantly looking for volunteers in both the short term and the long term
- If you want to try your hand at volunteering go to www.|volunteernow.co.uk/volunteering where you will find a list of volunteering from everything to one afternoon to regular appointments
- If you have a certain skill set that would be of use to others, go to the Match Me section of the Volunteer Now website. You can advertise yourself, your skills and the time you have to spare so that organisations can contact you with opportunities
- Most charities will advertise any volunteering opportunities on their websites. For examples, go to www.ageuk.org/volunteer, www.barnardos.org.uk or www.sosbusni.com