Volunteering: The art of getting back more than you put in

Researchers find much evidence of the benefits of donating time – so what real difference does it make?

Valerie Donovan with her son Matthew (left) and Caroline Kinsella with son Sam McLeod (11 months) at the Julianstown Autism Support Group in Meath. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth, or so the saying goes, and researchers have continuously found evidence of the health and mental benefits of volunteering. But how do long-term volunteers maintain their momentum and continue to give up their time? What drives groups of people to work together on projects?

The group behind Clones Film Festival think of the event as Ireland's "biggest little film festival" – quite the achievement in a town with no cinema. For the past 16 years, every October Bank Holiday weekend, a committee of 10 people have hosted screenings of features, documentaries and Irish and international short films in a variety of locations in Clones, Co Monaghan, with funding from the Arts Council and Monaghan County Council, and local sponsors.

Seven of the 10 members of the Clones Film Festival Committee: Paula McQuillan, Thomas Zechner, Geraldine Zechner, Seamie McMahon (chairperson), Siobhan Sheerin, Stephen McKenna and Kathy Sheerin. Photograph: Lorraine Teevan

“We are on the border up here,” says Siobhán Sheerin, one of the founding members of the festival. “It’s too far to drive to the IFI [Irish Film Institute in Dublin] or the QFT [Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast] to see exciting new films, so we decided to bring them to us instead.”

Being a volunteer for the Clones Film Festival committee means lots of late nights gathered around a kitchen table to plan and programme.


“Time is our greatest challenge,” says Sheerin. “We all have busy day jobs and family commitments, but we pool our skills so that the workload is evenly distributed.

‘Great craic’

“We make all decisions as a committee, which makes for animated discussions and great craic. But we always come to an agreement in the end. We basically meet all year except for a lull of a few weeks after the festival each year, which we need for recovery purposes. The committee are great friends; over the years we have managed to grow the festival while minding at least 15 children. We’re proud of what we have brought to our town. ”

It's that sense of pride that motivates the Pride of Place committee in the Dublin city neighbourhood of Stoneybatter. A core committee of around 30 volunteers was formed two years ago, when various volunteering groups in the area combined forces to enter the All-Ireland Pride of Place competition in the Urban Heritage Category, which they won in the 2,000-population category in 2016. To build on that momentum, they organised a Stoneybatter Festival for a weekend in June this year.

"All of this came together because of the committed, diverse, talented community in Stoneybatter," explains committee member Davina Smith.

“Organising a three-day festival is hugely demanding on time and energy. It was important for us to ensure that the committee were all volunteers and that the festival activities were locally based and locally sourced.”

The committee met weekly in the months leading up to the Pride of Place competition and the Stoneybatter Festival, and sub-committees met on a weekly or fortnightly basis.

‘Remarkable talents’

Apart from the competition win and organising a festival, what were the less visible results of all this time and effort? “The activities have harnessed the remarkable talents of all our community,” says Smith. “Old and new residents came together with community organisations and businesses to demonstrate the fantastic community spirit.”

In the village of Multyfarnham in Co Meath, the volunteers of the Multyfarnham Tidy Towns continually improve the overall appearance of their town while encouraging an appreciation of nature through planting schemes and tidying initiatives.

The village has entered the Tidy Town competition for over 50 years, and won the national prize in 1977.

"In recent years the previous committee was finding it difficult to recruit new members," says Thelma Greene, one of the committee volunteers. "But as this year marked the 40th anniversary of Multy's 'big win', there was momentum behind setting up the new committee.

“Our aim was to bring together all the groups, clubs and community members that were interested and try improve our points in the Tidy Towns competition. But more importantly, to reinvigorate our community by improving the landscape and general appearance of the area.”

The group is made up of volunteers who meet once a month for committee meetings but, Greene says, the majority of their work is done during evenings and weekends when they meet to complete projects – something that helps form friendships aswell.

Showing leadership

“It brings people together from all sections of society, people who would otherwise not have opportunity to get to know each other,” Greene says. “We are doing things for ourselves, showing leadership and also showing young people that by working together we can achieve goals. We are pooling our skills and talents and sharing them with each other.”

The Limerick Food Group is a voluntary group that came together to promote Limerick food, as well as connecting local food businesses and creating support networks for the city's food scene. A voluntary steering committee is made up of food professionals from local businesses. Together they co-ordinate guided walking tours and food trails, cookery demos by local chefs and producers, and they launched the Urban Food Fest in 2016 and The Pigtown Culture & Food Series, a two-month long festival of food, culture and family events celebrating the city's food heritage, in 2017. They hope to apply for funding next year, but currently their events have been supported by their own fundraising initiatives.

Overwhelmingly positive

“As well as meeting overarching objectives for improving Limerick’s food profile,” says Olivia O’Sullivan, “our events are diverse and cross all demographics. The feedback is overwhelmingly positive, and there are social, economic, and cultural positives in what we do. From the Urban Food Fest events which see people enjoying our open-air city centre Milk Market as an evening local street food market, to the Culture Night Pig Parade which had hundreds of families embracing our pig heritage with kids in pig masks, a 10ft giant pig, street theatre from Pigtown the play, and even live piglets – it was a terrific experience.”

Sharing ideas and skills is a perhaps unexpected outcome of the Island All-Ireland GAA tournament. Back in 1997, Simon Murray from Inisbofin sent a fax around to the islands of Ireland to see who would be interested in taking part in an Island All-Ireland tournament. Their men's tournament kicked off in 1998, and the women's tournament started the following year. Every summer since then, an island has hosted a tournament, welcoming up to 350 players and supporters.

Murray has been a member of the voluntary committee since 1998, alongside Páraic Ó Fátharta of Inis Meáin and Mikey O'Toole from Inishturk. They take care of fundraising, PR and the logistical side of hosting a tournament on an island. When making decisions, they meet with representatives of the participating islands, Inisbofin, Inishturk, Clare Island, Bere Island, Aran Islands, Arranmore and Whiddy Island. Next year's Island All-Ireland will be hosted on Bere Island on September 8th and 9th.

Sharing ideas and skills is a perhaps unexpected outcome of the Island All-Ireland GAA tournament.

“There are big costs involved for the players and supporters; there are two boat trips, driving, and accommodation. Each island do their own fundraising to enable their own teams to compete.”

The tournament receives a grant from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and the teams pay a €250 entry fee, which goes towards covering costs including insurance, medals and trophies, and the cost of each island hosting meals on the first night of tournaments. The committee has been campaigning to get the GAA to recognise the tournament and support it financially.

‘Very rewarding’

“The social aspect of the Island All-Ireland has been always very important to me,” says Murray. “It’s as much about football as it is about getting islanders to travel to other islands. You could pick up things that people are doing on other islands that could be applicable to your island, for example. The success of the tournament is going strength from strength. If you contrast the struggle of island life and maintaining the population on islands, it’s good to see the numbers growing in the tournament and showing no sign of it dwindling. That’s very rewarding.”

Sports, like food, can be a great leveller. Sajjad Hussain is a member of Refugee Support Ballaghaderreen in Co Roscommon. He's one of four voluntary coordinators alongside Debbie Beirne, Theresa Geever and James Gannon, who started the group as a way to help the Syrian refugees housed in Abbeyfield Hotel to integrate with the local community in Ballaghaderreen. As well as collecting donated goods such as clothes, toys and books, they wanted to offer the new members of their community something that would get them out of the hotel and into the community.

Abdullah Al Jaber shows off his Ballaghaderreen Cricket Club top, with colleagues in the background. Photograph: Brian Farrell

In March 2017, Hussein helped to co-ordinate a series of football matches between the local Irish, Pakistani and Syrian communities, giving them a respite from the reality of their lives as asylum-seekers.

Hussein, who runs a barber shop in Ballaghaderreen, remembers what it felt like to be an outsider in Ireland. “I’ll never forget the first Eid I spent in Ireland,” he says. “When I first moved to Ireland myself, I came without my family. Eid is like Christmas for Muslims, so it was a very hard time for me to be without my family. I was very lonely.

Members of the Ballaghaderreen cricket and soccer clubs. Photograph: Brian Farrell

‘Very emotional’

“I remembered that feeling when I first met the Syrians and as Eid approached, I talked with the local Muslim Pakistani community and we organised a get-together in Abbeyfield Hotel. We cooked traditional Pakistani and Syrian food, and we celebrated Eid together. There were all kinds of people there; men, women, kids, everybody was together. Some people said it was the best Eid they’d had in Ireland. Our Syrian friends were very happy to spend that day with us. I told them that day that ‘we are your family’. It was very emotional.”

Breaking bread has long been used as a way to start a conversation, and projects such as Our Table in Dublin and Sligo Global Kitchen have helped to highlight the issues around people living in Direct Provision in Ireland.

Mabel Chah is a core member of Sligo Global Kitchen, a community project supported by The Model in Sligo where people living in Direct Provision could use the kitchen space in The Model to cook food from their countries and eat together. "Some of the highlights have been being able to cater for over 300 people and inviting the Syrian refugees to come in and cook as part of the project," says Chah. "We have eaten meals from over 15 countries in the world without having left Sligo."

Considering people in Direct Provision can’t afford to eat out in restaurants, it’s a small but meaningful luxury to share a meal with friends and strangers, and it enables the community to find out more about the conditions people are living under the Direct Provision system.

‘Share, chat, appreciate’

“It has provided an empowering space for people who have nothing.” says Chah, “to put their culinary skills to use and have the community come to share, chat and appreciate what we have to offer. We have created a neutral, relaxed space with no prejudices where people from the community can come meet with the people living behind the walls of Direct Provision centres.”

Athy Sing & Sign in Co Kildare is another group breaking down communication barriers. Aiden McHugh set up an Irish Sign Language (ISL) class just over a decade ago for young people taking part in The Gaisce Award. He enlisted the help of Maggie Owens to teach ISL to teenagers. Since then, they have taught over 100 teenagers ISL.

Owen and McHugh thought it would be fun to teach the teenagers sign language through songs, and so the Athy Sing & Sign Club was formed. The group meets every Saturday for a few hours to learn ISL. "These kids could stay at home and watch the X-Factor," says Owens. "But they go to Athy Sing & Sign Club to learn ISL. That's why I tell them that they have the X, Y, and Z Factor!"

Athy Sing and Sign rehearsals at Athy Library. Photograph: Donall Farmer

The group recently created an illustrated booklet with caricatures by local artist Brendan O’Rourke of some of their students demonstrating signs. Using these booklets and a video about ISL, the group went to 16 local schools in September of this year to teach them about ISL. “Our Athy Sing & Sign Club has given these young teenagers a skill of communicating with deaf people for life,” says Owens. The students who have gone through the programme can use their ISL skills in communicating with deaf people they meet in their weekend jobs or future studies. The ISL Bill, an initiative to introduce ISL as the third language of Ireland, is currently in the 4th stage of the Seanad.

‘A huge difference’

“A deaf couple I know who live in Athy have told me that they have never seen a more deaf-friendly town. If they go into the local supermarket, they might bump into one of our students. It’s really nice for a hearing person to sign to them, even if only to say a simply thank you. It’s a small word but it makes such a huge difference.”

Providing a service can be empowering for both the user and the provider. Valerie Donovan set up Julianstown Autism Support Group in Co Meath in June 2017 while doing advocacy training with the Committee of the Julianstown Community Centre. With the support of the committee, particularly Debbie Wogan, Erica Dunne, Caroline Kinsella and Emer Dolphin, and Elaine Banville at Meath Sports Partnership, Donovan set up a summer camp and a Halloween camp for children with autism.

Valerie Donovan with her son Matthew (left) and Caroline Kinsella with son Sam McLeod (11 months) at the Julianstown Autism Support Group in Meath. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Donovan was motivated by her opinion that children with autism and intellectual disabilities were being forgotten in her catchment area. As a parent of two children on the spectrum of autism, she brought her own personal experience to designing a camp programme that would support parents and families in her area. “The camp was set up to help so the children could socialise in a safe environment, while trying new skills and feeling they belonged somewhere,” says Donovan. “Parents can relax as well; we are all in the same boat and no one is judging anyone.”

Members of the Julianstown Autism Support Group look forward to a Christmas visit from Santa at Julianstown Community Centre in Meath. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The same opportunities

Her aim is to bring sports activities to all of the children in East Meath, including those with disabilities, and to ensure all children are given the same opportunities when it comes to accessing sports. “Our children are different but not less.”

We’ve seen proof of the remarkable feats that a community can achieve when they work together, and the change it can create and impact it can make. So how can you be a part of that? What if you simply don’t have the time to donate? What if the balancing act of work and life has left you no space in the schedule for voluntary pursuits?

A 2012 study by Prof Cassie Mogilner at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania found that time spent helping others made people feel that they had more time, not less. "The results show," explains Prof Mogilner in a 2012 Harvard Business Review interview, "that giving your time to others can make you feel more 'time affluent' and less time-constrained than wasting your time, spending it on yourself, or even getting a windfall of free time".

Their results found that people who give time feel more capable and have a sense of accomplishment which may encourage them to accomplish more in the future – “...this self-efficacy makes them feel that time is more expansive”. You may not be able to donate 25 hours a week of your time but what about the occasional hour and a half? You might get back even more than what you’re giving in.