‘It’s about giving something back’: the many reasons to volunteer

Ireland has the highest rate of volunteering in Europe

Every year (since 1924), the Order of the Knights of St Columbanus have provided a hot meal on Christmas Day for the poor and homeless of Dublin City and surrounding areas – with hundreds of volunteers giving up much of their Christmas day to feed several thousand people.  Photograph: Frank Miller

Every year (since 1924), the Order of the Knights of St Columbanus have provided a hot meal on Christmas Day for the poor and homeless of Dublin City and surrounding areas – with hundreds of volunteers giving up much of their Christmas day to feed several thousand people. Photograph: Frank Miller

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Christmas is known as the season of goodwill, but for many people this will involve little more than buying a few last-minute gifts and turning up to someone’s house for dinner.

However, there are plenty of good Samaritans among us who will use the occasion to devote time and energy to people who are less fortunate.

Ireland has the highest rate of volunteering in Europe, with 28 per cent of the population taking time out to lend a hand or a listening ear to help someone in need.

Amy Woods of Volunteer Ireland (VI) says, as a nation, we are very generous when it comes to volunteering and many want to help out over the festive season. So if you feel like giving something back to your community, start making enquiries as early as possible.

“Irish people are traditionally very good at giving their time,” she says. “And every year around Christmas, we get plenty of queries from people looking to volunteer. But it’s important to remember that while there are opportunities on Christmas Day, the majority of organisations are closed so the availability is much smaller compared to the rest of the year.”

Saibh Egan from Galway City has been volunteering since she was a child with local animal charities and helps out with COPE Galway’s Food Rescue program – rescuing un-sold, in-date food from supermarkets and redistributing them to those in need.

Over the Christmas period, the graphic designer will help to deliver up to 600 hampers (which organisers hope will also include donations of non-perishable foods) from the drop-off point at Calbro House to the needy all over the city.

“I think it’s important to volunteer for so many reasons,” she says. “We are given so much in this life and if we aren’t spending at least some of that time helping those who need it, we are doing ourselves, our communities and indeed the world a disservice.

“In the lead-up to the holidays, I will be working hard collecting food and gifts for the hundreds of people accessing COPE Galway’s services. As soon as the food donations start to arrive, together with a little team of volunteers, I will work to put together hampers to be delivered just before Christmas – each consisting of non-perishable foods and treats as well as some household essentials and gifts.”

Christmas swim

And as if this wasn’t enough, the Galway woman will be hauling herself into the ocean on Christmas Day to raise funds and awareness for the charity.

“Now in its 27th year, the COPE Christmas swim has become such an ingrained tradition that no matter the weather, the people of Galway will brave the cold Atlantic to raise funds for those experiencing difficulties in our community,” she says. “The event itself is the best craic ever with generations of families in their Christmas coats and hats all venturing down to Blackrock and Salthill to join in or just watch the fun unfold.

“Christmas is a great time to volunteer as so many charity organisations feel a huge amount of strain at this time of year but it’s equally important to volunteer year round as help is always needed, not just in December.”

Kathy O’Connor from Letterkenny in Donegal also volunteers throughout the year, having begun by helping out with the local scouting group when her children were small.

Saibh Egan: over the Christmas period, the graphic designer will help to deliver up to 600 hampers from the drop-off point at Calbro House to the needy all over the city.
Saibh Egan: over the Christmas period, the graphic designer will help to deliver up to 600 hampers from the drop-off point at Calbro House to the needy all over the city.

After 10 years as a scout leader, she then spent 15 years on the voluntary counselling team with the Donegal Women Centre, is currently the secretary for the Blood Bike North West and has spent more than a decade helping with the local Christmas Day dinner.

“In 2005 I instigated a Christmas Day dinner for people living on their own – and since then around 40 volunteers help out every year,” she says. “We are now in our 12th year and it’s always an amazing day for both participants and volunteers. So many people are alone at Christmas and it can be one of the loneliest days in the year – so having somewhere to go can be a lifeline.

“In September I start planning by compiling a list of volunteers and work alongside the Chamber of Commerce to gather the items we need for the day. Then on Christmas Day (having prepared the day before) I spend from 9am until 6pm coordinating the day – then on St Stephen’s Day I crash.”

Kathy, who has five grown up children and 14 grandchildren, says volunteering benefits everyone involved.

Many benefits

“Volunteering found me and I just do what I do,” she says. “The amount of people who offer their time to improve their community is amazing and I am proud to be part of this voluntary revolution. I myself have been helped by good people when life got tough and I am forever grateful – so for me it’s about giving something back.

“It’s not always an easy task – as all kinds of hurt and disappointment can occur. But I try to focus on the intention of what I am doing and the purpose of the work. I believe that we could all contribute in some way or another to our community and in doing so we can get to have a deeper connection to those around us.”

Amy Woods of VI agrees but says that while the main reason people volunteer is altruistic, there are also many other benefits.

“There are a number of advantages of volunteering and according to our research, most volunteers want to give back to their community,” she says. “However, the benefits don’t stop there as it is also a great way to learn new skills and meet new people.

“Christmas can be a tough time for a lot of people and many groups work to make the day more bearable for those less fortunate. Giving up your time to help can make all the difference. But remember that volunteering is not just for Christmas. Charities provide vital services year round and are always looking for volunteers.”

Volunteering at Christmas

– There are fewer opportunities to volunteer on Christmas Day so if it’s something you really want to do, look into it as early as possible.

– Most volunteer roles require some level of training so be prepared to give up a few hours of your time before Christmas Day also

– Consider what skills you have and find an opportunity to match them

– Be realistic and only commit to what you can give

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