'I wouldn't want to be paid for this'


Volunteering activity is undergoing a welcome resurgence in post-Tiger Ireland, but the recession means there is a danger of such goodwill being exploited, writes KITTY HOLLAND

VOLUNTEERING doesn’t just consist of helping out with the school football team on Saturday mornings, or visiting the old folks’ home two evenings a week. To many, it’s vital to the future well-being of society.

2011 has been officially designated the European Year of Volunteering. Activities in Ireland will officially get under way on Saturday with an event hosted by President Mary McAleese at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, Dublin.

The aim of the year, says Elaine Bradley, chief executive of Volunteering Ireland, is to celebrate the work of volunteers across Europe, to enable more people to volunteer and to promote best practice in volunteering.

It can, she admits, “all sound a bit innocuous and seem to mean everything and anything do-goodish”. But volunteering has the potential to feed a need we lost sight of during the non-stop economic expansion of the past decade.

For so long, well-being has been assumed to depend solely on economic vitality. “GDP is not an effective measurement of progress and well-being in society,” she says.

Official figures put the number of people who engage in voluntary activity in Ireland at between 750,000 and one million.

Anna Hughes volunteers with Farranree Youth Clubs, in Cork. She first got involved in organising activities for children and young people in her Cork City Council housing estate on the northside of the city almost 30 years ago.

“Basically there was nothing there for young people, so we had to do it. We got involved in starting summer activities and soon we were running youth clubs for three age-groups. Now we are affiliated to Ógra Corcaigh, a board of 36 youth clubs in Cork city and county.

“I get the greatest satisfaction from volunteering. I have met the best friends I [ever] had through it. There is such a great sense of achievement against the odds.

“There is a particular camaraderie – from achieving things together, from seeing young people flourish – that I am convinced you only get from volunteering. It’s different to work because it’s something you really want to do and it’s yours.”

Paul Lynch in Dublin, who organises long hill-walks in Co Wicklow for recovering addicts every second Sunday, says he would not want to be paid for his voluntary activity. His paid work is in a HSE addiction treatment centre in Finglas.

“I found taking out for these walks was a good way to get a handle on them. The whinge factor is high in this business and this gets people out of Dublin, out of their situation. Walking suits the addicted mind, which is very selfish, tunnel-visioned.

“I see it as something I do – and it’s selfish too. I found I could be quite on edge in the clinic watching all these young people sad and hurting inside. I find this helps.

“I wouldn’t want to be paid for this. There would be checks and balances: you’d have to get insurance, start recording numbers. I’d rather [have] no official involvement. It’s a disorganised group of people and that’s just fine.”

Claire Connaughton, of the Children in Hospital Ireland charity, organises the training and recruitment of volunteers to provide play activities for hospitalised children.

“We have 400 to 500 volunteers, about 250 of whom are in Crumlin Hospital for Sick Children.

“First we get Garda clearance on all volunteers. Then there is comprehensive training over three or four sessions – about arts, crafts, the theory of play, listening skills. We support the volunteers if issues come up. It is an investment, but we also get support from the hospitals.

“We are very particular that we are not replacing the play specialists and therapists who work in the hospitals. We are there to do a little extra for the children.”

These activities epitomise what volunteering should be about, says Bradley, who shares concerns among some that voluntary goodwill could be exploited.

During a recession in particular, she says, the call for volunteers “needs to be dealt with cautiously”.

She contributed to a position paper on the issue published in December by the European Volunteer Centre, which says the “abuse of volunteering” must be avoided.

“It is unacceptable to look at volunteering as a cheap alternative to [employing] a workforce,” says the centre.

Says Bradley: “Voluntary activity should add value. It’s not about replacing paid staff.”

For more on 2011: European Year of Volunteering, see volunteeringireland.com; europa.eu/volunteering