Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

What makes these three people give up their time for free to help good causes?


Surveys say that volunteering can reduce the risk of everything from heart disease to dementia, as well as just generally making you feel better. Zara Baird, Robert Gardiner and Ashleigh Coyle explain to Lee Henry why they enjoy giving a helping hand.

I’ve met new friends who are now like family to me

Zara Baird

Zara Baird (32) is a health and safety officer based in Belfast who volunteers at the Ulster Grand Prix. She says:

I volunteer at the Ulster Grand Prix as a health, safety, environment and security officer and I love it. I have always been driven. I've climbed Kilimanjaro for charity and every year I organise a running event for the African charity Fields for Life - but volunteering at the Ulster Grand Prix came from my love of motorsport.

I volunteer to keep people safe. My approach is to look at any given situation and aim to improve it. The Ulster Grand Prix is the world's fastest motorcycle race. It attracts tens of thousands of supporters to Northern Ireland, as well as riders, from across the world every year, and I'm just happy to be a part of it.

The team are all volunteers who devote their time to the event, without getting paid a penny. I got my motorcycle licence in 2007 and I do get a buzz out of riding, so being able to watch the riders race and help to keep everyone safe is fantastic.

I have been helping out there for five years now. From a personal point of view, volunteering at the Grand Prix has helped me to make new friends - some of whom now feel more like family to me - and I feel part of something amazing.

And from a professional perspective, I've been able to improve my networking and transfer skills learned during incidents and interactions with emergency services, customers, riders and the public to my day-to-day work.

I have also volunteered during the Special Olympics, which was an incredible experience. In 2014, I received an email from a colleague stating that the Special Olympics required volunteers who were qualified in safety to assist with their events and ensure that everything could take place safely and run smooth.

I decided to offer up my time and expertise and have since joined the charity. The work involved meeting with a group of volunteers to organise and manage a swimming gala, which was a really brilliant event for all concerned. Volunteers are crucial in all walks of life. Without them, events like the Ulster Grand Prix, the Special Olympics, even arts festivals and the like, cannot take place. I love meeting new people and helping others, and I guess if we all had that attitude, we would live in a better world. I want to give something back.

It is really easy to volunteer. Usually organisations will put out calls for volunteers, or there will be a contact on their website. If not, do a Google search for people associated with the charity and contact them. Nowadays, with social media, it is fairly easy to find someone who knows those involved in a given charity, and they will always respond positively if you are genuine about helping out.

Some people think that I take on too much and should have more time to myself, but I just love being part of something and I want to create a legacy. I want to be remembered for giving something back and helping others.

For anyone thinking about volunteering, all I would say is, do it. Ask for forgiveness, not for permission."

I get great pleasure from knowing I have changed someone’s day by talking to them

Ashleigh Coyle during one of the collections for charity Me4Mental

Ashleigh Coyle (20) is a model and former Big Brother contestant based in Londonderry, who helps out with a mental health charity. She says:

I joined Me4Mental just over three months ago after meeting up with the chair, Patricia Flanagan McClean, who formed the charity. I had decided I was going to climb Mount Errigal and wanted to donate the money to a mental health charity and, obviously, due to the stats within my hometown regarding mental health and suicide, I wanted to donate it locally. It all started from there.

I joined the committee along with seven others and we try our very best to reach as many people suffering from mental health issues as we possibly can. I've always been pretty open about my own mental health struggles, so I can relate to a lot of people that come through our doors.

The other committee members do an absolutely amazing job and I see the hard work put in every day. Volunteering with Me4Mental ranges from organised bag packs and bucket collections to fun days. But a lot of our volunteering is simply giving up our time for coffee mornings, which are our main focus.

We hold coffee mornings each day of the week and welcome anyone suffering from mental health problems, carers or even people who maybe just want to understand it a little more to help a friend or family member. Basically it's a few hours every morning where we meet up and chat, laugh and let people get things off their chests about how they're feeling with people who understand what they're going through.

Organisations like Me4Mental wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the volunteers. When you're stuck in the middle of things, sometimes you forget to look at the work done and effort that's put in by so many people and much of that is thanks to volunteers.

Ashleigh Coyle

I have previously volunteered for other things, but it wasn't regular, just whenever I was free and if anything was on.

I used to do a lot of fundraising for the Rainbow Rescue and Rehoming Centre For Cats and Dogs, which is a local animal refuge centre close to my home, as I'm a huge animal lover.

I hate to sound cheesy, but the biggest reward in volunteering is knowing that I've helped someone.

It's hard to explain the pleasure I get from knowing that I've completely changed someone's day by simply taking the time out to chat or ensure they know that they're important.

Personally, I don't think there are any specific skills needed for volunteering. If you want to give up some of your free time to help someone, that's enough.

Everyone has the capacity to help in one way or another."

I started to help after school, now I’m at it nearly 20 years

Robert Gardiner

Content assistant Robert Gardiner (38) lives in Ballygowan with his three beagles and is chair of Downpatrick and County Down Railway. He says:

I have always had an interest in railways. I grew up beside the closed Comber railway line and always thought it was a shame that it was closed to the public. Unfortunately that is now the case for a lot of our railway heritage.

We also had a caravan up in Portrush beside the railway line there, and so I would hear the horn blowing and the distinctive clickety-clack of the incoming carriage, and there was something magical about that.

When we were kids on holidays we also got to ride on the train as a treat. There was the remains of an old railway carriage a couple of fields away behind our house and I was fascinated by it.

I discovered Downpatrick and County Down Railway as a teenager following a news report by the BBC.

I had never heard of it before, I must admit, so I went down exploring one day in 1997 and went back for Easter. It was a short run, not even a mile up to what’s known as the viking King Magnus’s burial mound.

I was shown around the workshops by one of the volunteers, Barney Graham, who taught me about some of the fantastic woodwork and restoration work going on there in turning things like the carriage into gleaming restored beauties.

My dad has always been a passionate woodworker and I had picked up that passion and those skills, so it was naturally very appealing to me to get involved. Barney suggested volunteering and I went down to help over summer between school and university, thinking that would be that. Now I’ve ended up volunteering for almost 20 years.

Robert Gardiner in the workshop at Downpatrick and Count Down Railways

These days, I do quite a lot of things. On running days I’m usually booked as a guard on the train (the one with the flag), but outside that I’m usually involved in a lot of restoration work and board meetings in my role as chair. I’m currently working on a 1950s carriage. There are probably around a dozen carriages and seven diesel and three steam locomotives there, so there is a lot to be done.

The place is very much a hobby for me, but we could do with more volunteers, especially individuals with woodworking and metal skills to help restore our collection.

We also want people interested in learning how to operate the railway. You don’t even need to be that passionate about railways.

It’s for those with an interest in history, transport, design, lots of different things.”

Northern Ireland is very much behind England, for example, in terms of people volunteering for this sort of project.

Quite a good number of visitors assume we’re paid staff, or get funding from Stormont, but we aren’t and we don’t.

We’re just average Joe Bloggs from all walks of life who want to restore a little bit of what was taken away in the 1950s.

In all walks of life, we often hear people say the following: ‘Someone should do something about that.’ Well, my contention is that you are someone and you can do something about that.”

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph