The value of volunteers
People who freely offer their time and money to benefit others get back more than they give. Nothing can quite match the personal satisfaction of making your local community, or a poverty-stricken foreign village, a better place in which to live. The health of a society reflects the level of community participation by its members and, as former president Mary McAleese once remarked: without the commitment of volunteers, Ireland would enter a social, cultural, individual, horrendous ice age.
Reports from overseas aid bodies present a snapshot of the contributions currently being made by students, workers and professionals in Africa and in countries affected by natural disasters and war. Most projects involve placements of less than three months and involve building and construction, community development and youth activities. Students provide 40 per cent of that manpower. Longer-term assistance is provided through VSO and EIL Ireland, agencies that specialise in providing nurses, doctors, teachers, managers and other professionals for particular projects. Recently retired public servants are in particular demand and they make up 30 per cent of volunteers.
Experience, wisdom and skill are valuable assets in distant places. So too are youth and idealism. Overseas experience may represent the ‘flash’ element of volunteering, but the great bulk of unpaid effort takes place here at home. Those commitments can range from a father who devotes winter months to coaching young footballers; to a mother who drives them to matches; to safety and first aid volunteers. Meals-on-wheels provides the elderly with food and social contacts. Youth work, homelessness, drug addiction, animal welfare and many other activities create valuable inter-connections in a country still ravaged by recession. Overseas agencies placed about 4,500 volunteers last year. But nearly eight times that number were involved in providing services at home. The economic value of their efforts was estimated at €33m. As the proverb puts it: Ar scath a cheile a mhaireann na daoine.