My volunteering career began fairly radically.
As it is for many people, my working life was all consuming for a long time, and left little time for volunteering. It had been bothering me for a long time though, in that low level kind of way, that niggling feeling that something about the way I was living my life wasn’t right for me, that something was missing. At that time I wasn’t aware of the concept of values, and in hindsight I can see that my work wasn’t satisfying my core values and that is what was leaving me feeling dissatisfied. I ignored this for a awhile, but eventually I was forced to acknowledge it and in 2004 I decided it was time to investigate working in the charitable sector.
The internet is a wonderful thing, as it can expand our thinking on so many levels just through the results of a google search. In my case that was ‘working in the charitable sector’. Various charities in the UK came up, as did Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). When I saw the site, I knew that was what I was going to do.
I applied in October 2004, was accepted by the end of the year, and left from my job as Sales Operations Manager for Carnival Cruise Lines in April 2005. Having sold my house and most of my possessions, by June I was on a plane to India. So from not volunteering at all, I was now a full time volunteer in India for a 2 year contract.
I worked for the Centre for Youth and Social Development in Bhubanswar in Orissa as a Communications Advisor, and loved it. It was challenging on so many levels – adapting to the weather, the food, the accommodation, a new culture, learning a different language, a massively different sector of work, and hugely different ways of working, office politics, hierarchy, and social life.
It’s not possible to explain in a few words what I got out of that experience. I learned so much about another country and culture, built some wonderful relationships, had some excellent adventures, and experienced a great sense of achievement over and over again as I learned how to survive and then thrive in this new world.
I left with an overwhelming feeling that I had gained so much more from 2 years in India than I had given.
I could not go back to corporate life now. Luckily an opportunity arose to set up a new international volunteering programme funded by DFID, and this allowed me to support less advantaged young people to gain a similar kind of life changing experience that I had had doing VSO. It was fantastic to hear the Platform2 volunteers talk about what they had learned, and how much the experience had changed them and their perceptions of themselves and the world when they returned.
I have been quite itinerant in my life, moving house, changing cities, moving to different countries, and this has made local volunteering a bit challenging. When I made the choice in 2011 to come back to Bedford to settle, I felt I now could commit to some regular volunteering. I applied to be a listening volunteers for Bedford Samaritans and started the training over 8 consecutive Saturdays, in May 2012.
One of the things I love about volunteering is the people I have met. In our day to day lives, we tend to mix with people who live in the same areas, work in the same place, have the same hobbies, are mostly the same age. But when you volunteer, you meet all kinds of people you might not normally ever connect with. I have met some wonderful people through Samaritans, and I find the work to be very rewarding. It sounds odd to say that I enjoy listening to people who are in distress and despair, but I have heard so many Samaritans say the same thing. The most important thing I get from doing it, is a sense of perspective. It’s easy to get wrapped up in our own lives and lose sight of the good things about it, the things we take for granted, and the things we are lucky enough to have in our lives which others can only dream of. I always leave a shift feeling grateful for my life, and for the people in it and my relationships with them.
My personal experience of volunteering and what I have learned from other volunteers is that it enriches our lives enormously. It might contribute to society, but it also contributes to us personally, giving us a sense of purpose, of connection with other people, of self worth, and perspective.
It’s for these reasons that getting involved in things bigger than yourself, volunteering, getting involved in community activities, are all great contributors to your long term happiness.
And it’s because of my feeling about volunteering that I was touched to be the recipient of the Silver Heart Award at the Bedfordshire Business Women Awards last week. The award, sponsored by Heart FM, is given to someone who may volunteer in her spare time or fundraise for charity, and recognises dedication and commitment and rewards them for their selfless attitude and kind heart.
Find out more about volunteering with Samaritans here. Or get in touch with Voluntary Works, a consortium of local organisations working to promote and support the voluntary and community sector in Bedfordshire.