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The Wonderful World of Volunteering

My introduction to volunteering began in 1999.  I had just graduated from university with a degree in psychology and I wasn’t sure what exactly I wanted to do next or when or how I should start my career.  I read an ad in the newspaper welcoming applications for a long term volunteer programme and it intrigued me.  Little did I know just what I was entering into ... the wonderful world of volunteering ...

...a year that was going to give me direction, confidence, where I would meet lots of amazing people and best of all, have plenty of fun and laughter along the way.

I was based in the Young Citizens in Action at VSB and was involved in all their youth projects and sat on their management committee.  I spent one day a week befriending a very special young woman who had been in a tragic car accident when she was young, leaving her without speech and in a wheelchair.  We built a positive and trusting relationships and I found her inspirational to be around.  We enjoyed lots of trips out together, lots of listening to Westlife, and the rest of the time just getting to know each other.  This was an aspect of volunteering I found hugely satisfying – providing support and friendship to someone feeling isolated.

I also volunteered as a group work facilitator with Extern, where I was working directly with young people affected by social exclusion.  This was a daunting new experience for me but I soon discovered I had a heart for working with these vulnerable and often challenging young people and this was the start of my voluntary work giving me direction and focus for my future.  I now work as a residential social worker in an intensive support unit for vulnerable young people and I truly believe my voluntary work played a key role in bringing me to where I am today.  The skills I had learned were invaluable in helping me gain a place on Masters in Social Work at Queens University.  They boosted my CV and were recognised by my future employers.  Really, I owe a great deal to voluntary work.

University leavers, like me at that time, need more than academic degrees to stand out from the crowd.  There is a lot of value in mixing academic skills with opportunities for practical application and these are often easily gained through volunteering; preparing you better for the ‘real world’.  I can certainly vouch for this as if it hadn’t been for the array of experiences and the skills I had learned through voluntary work I would not have discovered my interest in a career in social work.

During my year as a long term volunteer I got involved in their youth volunteering project to Romania for 2 weeks – bringing aid and assistance to those in need.  This was something I had always wanted to do and so I jumped at the chance to get involved.  We fundraised hard in order to bring out as much money as possible.  When I think back to all the fancy dress theme nights, pub quizzes, and coffee mornings – we had some serious fun and raised thousands of pounds while doing so.  The trip itself to Brasov, Romania was an overwhelming one.  We worked in orphanages, with street children, in Aids and TB hospitals to name a few.  We saw firsthand the devastating sights of children tied to their cots, others rocking back and forth, numb from the abuse and neglect they were experiencing.  It was an emotional trip but it had a lasting impression.  The following year I helped lead the team to Romania for VSB – I just wanted the opportunity to introduce others to the experience I had and to encourage as many as possible to get involved in this rewarding and life changing work.

This trip to Romania was to be significant to me as to this day, 10 years later, I am still visiting Romania on a regular basis, still leading teams out, and have helped set up an NGO there working with young people leaving institutional care.  Romania has become a second home to me, the people there have become my extended family...goodness, I even brought my new husband and wedding dress there 3 years ago and had a second wedding party with all the people I have worked with over the years, who have come to mean so much to me.  Now they are all eagerly waiting for us to return soon to introduce our new little son, Jack.

Volunteering can bring you into contact with people from every walk of life.  I have experienced working alongside those living on the streets through my voluntary work in Romania.  I have found it heartbreaking seeing little babies of only a few months living with their parents on the streets and in the sewers of Brasov.  Our help to them has been on a small scale and very practical; bringing large containers of hot water and bars of soap for them to wash and making big pots of hot soup to bring them in the freezing cold of winter (where temperatures can reach -30 degrees).  They are always so grateful for the little help we bring and I’ve enjoyed getting to know some of these people over the years.  I’ve learned many of them have ended up homeless as they have run away from state institutions or because their families could not afford to keep them.  Many spend their days sniffing glue to escape the hopelessness of their situation.  It is very sad and frustrating that we cannot do something more to help them all.

I did my bit too for the homeless in N.Ireland when I took part in the Simon Community’s sleep out at the City Hall many years ago now.  It was only for a few hours one chilly night but it really brought it home just how difficult it can be for those permanently living this way.

So there you have it, what I can only sum up as the ‘wonderful world of volunteering’ – it has played a huge role in making me who I am today.  Volunteering has certainly made a positive impact in my life.  I believe the benefits to be gained from volunteering are endless; you learn new skills, boost your career options, recognise your potential, meet new people in diverse settings and forge lasting friendships.  What better way to have fun that giving your time to others!  My experience of volunteering has been an amazing one and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Emma Williams