Who wants to volunteer for a better life?

Volunteers need to be trained, supported and cherished

Tue, May 6, 2014, 01:00

How many volunteers does it take for your child to have a local sports club? One to coach a team, another to organise matches, somebody to mark the pitches, two to put up the goalposts or nets, others to sit on the club’s board . . . to name just a few.

That’s for just one sport. If your children are involved in several sports, as well as Guides or Scouts, a youth club and a local drama group, you have numerous volunteers in your family’s life to whom you should be grateful. Ideally, you are one as well.

Volunteering is the lifeblood of any community and one silver lining of the economic downturn has been the upsurge in the number of people volunteering.

The flipside is that central organisations have had deep cuts to funding for the core, professional staff who are essential to support a volunteer network that can’t do it alone, to a standard expected and required in 21st-century Ireland.

The beauty of volunteering is that it should be win-win. Not only does it allow people to avail of activities or services they couldn’t otherwise afford, but the helpers repeatedly report that it benefits them too.

Some 98 per cent of those surveyed in 2012 by the national agency Volunteer Ireland agreed that volunteering makes them happier.

Most people have more than one reason for coming forward, says Yvonne McKenna, chief executive officer of Volunteer Ireland.

These range from wanting to help others to looking to develop skills, while the biggest reason people give for not being involved, as the GAA notes in its club manual on volunteering, is that they were not asked.

“I know it sounds cliched that people get out of it more than they put in but the reality is that’s what keeps coming back,” according to McKenna, ahead of National Volunteering Week, which starts next Monday.

Contact centres
People are encouraged to contact one of 20 centres around the country or browse the I-VOL database run by Volunteer Ireland through which not-for-profit organisations seek volunteers according to their area and expertise.

For instance, typing in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, brings up 56 opportunities, ranging from becoming a “community mother” or mending bicycles to being a computer tutor or refereeing boxing matches.

While, generally, there is no shortage of offers to help, there is often a mismatch between what organisations are looking for and what people want to give, says McKenna.

“Organisations tend to think, ‘We need money. We need fundraising,’ instead of thinking, ‘What we need are skills; soft skills and hard skills.’” And for every person happy to fundraise, there must be dozens who cringe at the thought.

The focus on fundraising is something Áine Lynch, chief executive of the National Parents’ Council (Primary), sees as a disincentive to parents getting involved with school associations.

She would prefer to see educational volunteering encouraged instead; time spent on tasks such as paired reading, artwork, sports or other after-school activities.

“If there was recruitment around children’s learning, I think it would be a lot easier to get volunteers,” she says. “I think volunteering for fundraising should be separated.”

Community activities outside school are also vital for the self-development of young people.

Mary Cunningham, the director of the National Youth Council (NYC), is very concerned about the 40 per cent cut to funding of youth work since 2007.

The NYC’s member organisations, which cater for 382,600 young people, have about 1,400 staff between them, who work with 40,000 volunteers.

Frontline services
There is a sense in some circles, she suggests, “that you can deliver frontline services to young people with volunteers exclusively, without recognising that those volunteers need to be trained and supported, and that does require some paid staff in the background”.

At the same time there is an increasing emphasis, and quite rightly so, she acknowledges, on not only providing quality services but also being able to demonstrate that quality.

This means youth clubs, as well as youth organisations, have to participate in quality assurance schemes. This brings its own challenges.

“What volunteers say is that they did not take this on to be an administrator and to fill out forms,” says Cunningham. Some resent the bureaucracy and point out that they are volunteering because they want to work directly with young people.

However, Scouting Ireland, NYC’s largest member organisation, reports that its recruitment of volunteers has grown by about 4 per cent a year over the past six years.

And one of the surprising statistics that John Lawlor, its chief executive, reels off is that 70 per cent of those coming forward were not members when they were children.

One reason is that the traditionally all-male movement started taking in girls only 25 years ago – some 90 per cent of its groups are now mixed – and today just over 50 per cent of Scouting Ireland’s volunteers are women.

It also reflects the growth in scouting. For example, the first Gaeltacht group opened recently in Gweedore, Co Donegal; another is due to open shortly in nearby Falcarragh; and there is now an all-Polish group in Dublin.

But Lawlor too talks of the “gutting” of its State funding – down 35 per cent over the past four years – as Scouting Ireland struggles to retain 35 paid staff to support and train about 10,500 volunteers, with 150 new people signing up every month.

“We are not the sort of organisation that goes bashing the Government but we have made the point that there is a price to be paid for this,” he says.

“We are very good value for money: the multiplier effect of having that many volunteers is incredible.”

The average volunteer is estimated to give the organisation 200 hours a year and, on joining, is not fazed by the health and safety training requirements. And, with waiting times for Garda vetting down to about six weeks, that is no longer the “show-stopper” it once was, says Lawlor.

Taken for granted?
Is there a tendency for some parents to take volunteers for granted? It has always been a joke within scouting, he replies, that un-informed parents think the leaders get paid.

“That is not necessarily a bad thing, in that they expect them to be professional, and I think that is important.

“The majority of parents are wonderful and they are entrusting their child to you,” he continues. “That is huge.” However, there are some who “barely slow the car up” when dropping their child and who don’t want to get involved.

“They see it as a service they can avail of cheaply, but I have to say that is a minority,” he stresses.

As for the volunteers, Scouting Ireland expects them to enjoy it and benefit personally. “They are no use to us if they don’t,” adds Lawlor. “We have no space for martyrs.”

See volunteer.ie

‘You are giving up time but you are gaining so much more

ad Crilly joined the Irish Girl Guides as a Brownie when she was six and she’s still involved, now as a leader, almost 20 years later.

“I started my own group [in 2011] and it is one of the things that I am proudest of,” says the 24-year-old primary school teacher, who leads the Millmount unit of 24 girl guides in Drogheda, Co Louth, as well as being a Brownie assistant leader.

“I think volunteering has made me a better teacher and the educational expertise has made me better at delivering the [guiding] programme.”

Not for one moment does she think her voluntary work is taken for granted. There is huge support from the organisation, she says, and you feel “cherished” by the children.

“The biggest thing we give the girls is confidence, and I am so much more confident too. You are part of something bigger – the community – and it is a worldwide network as well. Yes, you are giving up time but you are gaining so much more as a volunteer.”

Being an all-female organisation has its problems on the recruitment side, for example, if leaders become pregnant and might not be able to return after having a baby.

“We are always looking to recruit more leaders so we can have more groups,” she explains. There are long waiting lists and while parents often say they would like to get involved, they can find it hard to commit the time.

Asked what changes she has noticed in girls over the years, she singles out the influence of media. However, Guides aims to give them a head start, so that they can be confident and happy with themselves.

“It is a girl-only space. You know all the pressure of media on young girls; we give them an opportunity to explore those challenging issues.”

During the Easter break she took her Guides to Belfast. “They didn’t have their phones from Tuesday morning to Thursday night and they all survived,” she says with a laugh.

“You go away to camp, go back to basics and have fun without having music on or playing Candy Crush,” she adds.

“That is fostering an independence in them as well.”

‘I really feel I have learned a lot and it has challenged my preconceptions

Ali Robertson was apprehensive when she walked into the Cork Life Centre to volunteer, the day after she handed in her thesis for an MA in creative art therapy.

At college she had avoided placements with adolescents because anybody who worked with that age group said it was the hardest thing they had ever done. Yet here she was offering to help at an education centre for what many would regard as particularly challenging teenagers: those who, for whatever reason, have been excluded from school.

The stereotypical view is that these youngsters have withdrawn from society and are really not interested in being helped, says Robertson, who is 29. But she found the opposite.

“I feel their experience is that society has rejected them and as soon as you give them something that they can understand to take up, they will take it up and go with it and communicate with you so much.”

Some 40 students attend the centre, one of four in the Republic, where they get one-to-one tutoring from teachers so that they can sit the Junior or Leaving Certificate. And Robertson does drama therapy with those who are struggling and need a bit more support.

“If you were standing at the door you wouldn’t see any drama,” she says. “It’s any creative, expressive act.” The student may paint, tell stories or play the guitar: anything that allows them to communicate a little bit easier.

One testament to its benefit is that not a single teenager has dropped out of therapy since she started there in September 2012.

“It may sound cliched but they are an absolute joy to work with,” says Cork-born Robertson. “I really feel I have learned a lot and it has challenged my preconceptions.”

Stepping stone
It has also proved to be a stepping stone into part-time paid work in creative art therapy with another organisation.

“I don’t think anyone would have employed me straight out of college. For something as important and delicate as that, you need to show that you know what you’re doing.” But she has no intention of giving up her one day a week at the Cork Life Centre.

“You have to get as much out of volunteering as you would out of a paid job and the question is, what do you get that is as valuable as money? I get to work with a team of people who are really inspiring and energetic.

“The energy in a place that is full of volunteers is so much greater than a normal workplace. People are there because they want to be there.”

However, despite the huge contribution from more than 60 volunteers such as Robertson, the centre’s future is uncertain as funding from the Christian Brothers, which enabled it to be opened, has dried up and the Department of Education has said it is unable to increase its contribution.

See corklifecentre.org

Tapping into teenagers’ technical skills

Volunteering opportunities for teenagers are limited but an innovative scheme called 121digital is tapping them for their innate skill with mobile phones, tablets and laptop computers.

Fintan Mulligan of Ashford, Co Wicklow, had the idea of pairing secondary-school students with adults in the community who wanted to learn how to work their technological devices, or how to use them better.

He started locally and 121digital is now running in seven Co Wicklow schools, but has spread to three in Co Kerry and one in Co Meath, as he now dreams of a national rollout. The scheme runs as an optional module in transition year and the adults come into the school for seven weekly sessions of one and a half hours, always working one-to-one with the same teenager. This gives the young tutor the chance to get to know the older person: not only how they learn, but socially.

“What is delivered is hugely powerful because it’s one-to-one,” says Mulligan. The tutors are told always to ask what the adult wants to learn that day, which “guarantees the relevance of everything we teach and the attention of the learner to everything we say. So progress can be huge, relative to the learner’s ability, of course.”

Apart from the benefit to the adults who are learning vital communication skills, 121digital also gives students a taste of volunteering from an early age.

Initially, “they make the mistake, as indeed I did at a much more mature age, that [\volunteering] is all one way,” says Mulligan. “What they get is perhaps equally powerful, in a different currency.”

For a start, the fact that for once they are being complimented on their digital skills, rather than being nagged about them, is a boost to their morale, as is the realisation that they have something valuable to give to an older person.

While often a child-to-parent technological lesson ends in exasperation on both sides, this has not proved to be the case for 121digital.

The absence of family dynamics and lack of time pressure has meant Mulligan can proudly report that impatience has never been an issue between the 900-plus tutors and 900 learners who have so far benefited from the scheme.


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