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How good deeds really do help you live longer

As a new study reveals volunteers are healthier and have a greater life expectancy, Stephanie Bell meets Belfast charity workers Jaime Valente, who was inspired by her mum, and Anne Dawson, who works with prisoner's families

New research has shown that charity work is good for your health. In Northern Ireland there are more than 250,000 volunteers freely putting in their time and effort to support local charities and organisations working with those most in need in our community.

Now experts at Southampton and Birmingham universities have found that these selfless people will be healthier thanks to their good work.

The results of the study, published in the medical journal BMJ Open, found that those who engaged in volunteering regularly appeared to experience higher levels of mental wellbeing than those who never volunteered.

And the latest findings showed that it was people in middle age who benefited the most.

The figures argue for more efforts to involve middle-aged and older people in volunteering-related activities.

The report said: "Volunteering action might provide those groups with greater opportunities for beneficial activities and social contacts, which in turn may have protective effects on health status."

Around one in five of the 5,000 participants in the study said they had volunteered.

Women tended to volunteer more than men, and while almost one-quarter of those aged 60 to 74 said that they volunteered, this proportion dropped to 17% among the youngest age group.

The positive link between volunteering and good mental health became apparent at around the age of 40 and continued up to the age of 80 and beyond.

We talk to two local volunteers who explain why they give up their free time to help others and what they get out of it.

Jaime Valente (39) is a sales administrator from Belfast who volunteers with Marie Curie. She is married to Peter (46), a cinema manager. Jaime set up a fundraising support group in memory of her late mum Muriel Campbell, who passed away at 72. Her mother had devoted her life to raising funds for Marie Curie and then was nursed by the charity when diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2008. She says:

Volunteering has been part of my life as long as I can remember. Before I was born my mum was raising funds for Marie Curie. When I was a child I helped her put collection tins in shops and remember stopping in the middle of the road to pick up 1p — my mum would tell me ‘it all adds up’.

Sadly my mummy needed the help of the Marie Curie nurses in November 2008. She had been unwell for some time and the doctors did tests and biopsies then discovered she had cancer in her lungs. This spread to her liver and she only had a few weeks after the diagnosis.

Marie Curie nurses cared for her at home. I was always aware of what Marie Curie nurses did but seeing it first hand — how they cared for my mummy with such compassion and kindness, how they supported myself and my family. I knew I had to do something to continue on my mummy’s legacy of supporting Marie Curie. I wanted to help ensure others were able to access the end of life care my mummy had.

Even though we were all there for mum the support from the nurses made all the difference. It meant that dad could have a good night’s sleep and they also provided emotional support, helping us to prepare for what was going to happen.

I called Marie Curie to see how I could help and at the time they were trying to set up local fundraising groups.

I organised a meeting in our area in Newtownabbey, putting posters out, contacting the media and posting leaflets through doors and luckily I had a group of people turn up.

We met in June 2009, and we decided to call it Muriel’s Marie Curie Fundraising Group — even though I hadn’t suggested that and they were strangers to me which was really lovely.

We still have about 30 people in the group which is amazing and, to date, we have raised around £60,000, which for a working class area like ours is fantastic.

The group meets once a month and organise events for the year ahead and also support the charity’s flagship events such as Walk 10, which is this week, and the Daffodil Appeal.

Most weeks I spend time organising or contacting people. Knowing that I am doing this in mummy’s memory and also being able to help people access the great care of Marie Curie is a good feeling.

I am also a Marie Curie ambassador, collecting donations from outside organisations and groups and thanking them and speaking briefly about the charity’s work.

I spoke recently at Fundraising Groups Day at the hospice on how to set up a group and suggestions for fundraising and how to make it fun.

Although it is quite poignant it’s also very rewarding knowing that you are doing something to help people when they most need it.

You need to want to help to get a lot out of volunteering. If you don’t enjoy it there is no point.

When we are out doing collections you meet people who share their stories and it feels good to know that you are there for them. And it’s great to meet so many new people.

When we started the group we were all strangers and now those people are my best friends who I know I could call on for anything. I do get a lot out of it and feel I am doing something worthwhile. Volunteering is good and it helps your own mental health as well as building confidence. You feel like you are doing good by giving something back to the community.

Deciding to be become a volunteer for Marie Curie and setting up the fundraising group helped me after the passing of my mummy; it gave me a sense of something good to come out of a heartbreaking situation.”

You can find out more about Jaime’s fundraising group at

Anne Dawson (41) is communications manager at Barnardo’s and volunteers for the charity’s Parenting Matters Service. Anne, from Belfast, is married to Stephen McGrath (38) who works in public relations. She says:

Working for Barnardo’s for the past eight years I have seen the work the charity does and was so impressed with it that I wanted to help. One of the services called Parenting Matters has a scheme called Family Matters which works with families of prisoners across Northern Ireland.

I volunteered to help with this scheme at Maghaberry Prison about a year and a half ago.

Once a month on a Saturday, the prisoners get an extended visit for four hours with their children and wives or partners. This gives them an opportunity to put into practice the parenting skills which they are taught on the course.

I am one of the volunteers during this visit. The scheme is very child-focused. And research shows the more contact children have with their parents the better they will do.

The dads do a six-month parenting course and put into practice what they have learned during a visit.

As a volunteer I am there to help out by putting on activities, such as getting the dads and kids to create memory boxes and collages where the kids will say what their dads are good at and the dads put on what the kids are good at. There are also games and other activities, too.

It is quality time for the families and I think the children and families really appreciate that as volunteers you are giving up your own time to spend with them rather than because you are getting paid. This helps give them a sense of self-worth.

I really enjoy working directly with the families which is something I don’t get with my job. It allows me to really see the work of the charity first-hand and the difference it makes to the lives of families. It is great to see the children coming in and getting so much out of it.

We are helping these families to forge stronger bonds and it does feel really good to be part of that.

I have also made some really nice friendships and met up with people outside the prison setting.

It might sound bizarre but I really enjoy my Saturdays getting up and going to Maghaberry prison.

You do feel that in a tiny way you are helping to make a difference and I think that is the same for most people who volunteer.

I missed the last day of the recent six-month course and the families had cards for me, which I didn’t expect and that was just so nice.

Being a volunteer makes me happy and fulfilled and I feel I’m contributing something. To be fulfilled is a nice feeling to have.

In my job it also means I can look the other staff in the eye and be able to say I know what you do because I volunteer — and I am part of Barnardo’s working with families and children.”

For more information about volunteering with Barnardo’s visit or tel: 028 9067 2366

Why our writer does it

By Frances Burscough:

I’m not surprised to learn that volunteering is good for your health. I’ve certainly noticed a difference since I started volunteering in 2013 at the age of 50.

Homelessness and poverty had always been a great concern but giving a couple of quid every so often didn’t feel like enough. So my first venture into volunteering was to work in the kitchen at The Welcome Organisation which is a charity drop-in centre for the homeless in Belfast.

On my first day there, I arrived just as lunch was being served to the day’s visitors, approximately 100 people of all ages and appearances, all of whom had that one thing in common — they were vulnerable and in need of help.

On the menu that day was hearty lentil soup with wholemeal granary bread followed by beef stew. It looked and smelled delicious and, as all of the food served had been donated by supermarkets, shops or individuals, it was also heartening to see.

After I had been shown around the centre, had an interview with staff and filled in the application forms, I could then get on with what I’d set out to do which was quite simply to roll up my sleeves and get stuck in.

Since then I have handed out thousands of hot dinners, washed hundreds of thousands of pots and plates, peeled a veritable mountain of spuds and made gallons of tea and coffee. And that’s just for the visitors. The Welcome also has a fleet of vans that go out at night and take food to those sleeping rough, so another of my jobs was to make sandwiches and packed lunches to be distributed by the outreach team.

During my time at the shelter I met some really inspirational people and it has confirmed what I have always believed to be the truth. The same thing could have happened — or could still happen — to any one of us, had our lives taken another path. Being there and providing that service without any personal financial reward was for me the best part of all. It brought with it so many benefits — the main one being the appreciation from the visitors when you hand them a steaming plate of hot food after they’ve spent a night in the freezing cold.

For me, though, the sense of doing something really worthwhile and making a difference to people’s lives in a practical way — you just couldn’t put a price or a value on that kind of job satisfaction.

Reasons for volunteering

Why should you volunteer?

  • wanting to improve things or help other people
  • supporting a cause that’s really important to you
  • meeting new people and having new experiences
  • connecting with the community you live in
  • building your knowledge, skills and experience if you’re looking for a job
  • wanting to make a difference to the world around you

The Northern Ireland Volunteering Strategy defines volunteering as the commitment of time and energy, for the benefit of society and the community, the environment, or individuals outside (or in addition to) one’s immediate family.

It is unpaid and undertaken freely and by choice.

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