There’s rightly been a lot of praise and gratitude from Olympians and politicians alike for the work of volunteers during the Olympic fortnight. Laura Trott, double Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist, is quoted as saying: ‘‘Sport can’t exist without volunteers. The coaches I had never got paid. The guy who runs Welwyn Wheelers, the club where I started, doesn’t get paid. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am.”
But while I agree that volunteers give their time freely, it’s wrong to suggest that they’re doing something for nothing. They may go unpaid and sometimes unappreciated but never unrewarded. Imagine how great it must be to feel passionate about a sport you love and then see a protégé of yours go on to win not one, but two Olympic Gold medals! There are some rewards you simply cannot put a price on.
I’ve been a volunteer hospital radio presenter for a little over 10 years and, on hearing this, people sometimes say how marvellous I am to give up my time for nothing. This usually makes me feel guilty because actually my reasons for volunteering are not purely altruistic – I enjoy myself so much I feel privileged to do it. If you could measure personal satisfaction and pleasure then I most certainly receive as much, if not more, than I give. During my time with the station I’ve made lots of good friends, met some fascinating people and overcome personal challenges such as appearing in public at outside broadcasts.
There have been tragically moving moments, like the time a crowd of bikers asked me to play Metallica (not your usual hospital music fodder) for one of their number who was in intensive care and, it was thought, unlikely to pull through the next hour. There’ve also been moments of pure joy like the time a teenager recovering from a suicide attempt came to the studio and asked to be allowed to sing on air. The resulting ‘A Capella’ version of a well known song would, I’m sure, have earned a ‘Yes’ from all four X-Factor judges! And then there’ve been moments of pure comedy like the time some builders requested Simply Red’s ‘Holding Back The (Y)ears’ for one of their mates who was recovering from an operation to have his sticking-out ears surgically pinned back.
For writers, who spend so much of their time in solitude, volunteering can provide so many benefits: You get to meet real characters, many of whom might be described as ‘larger than life’; you gain insights and understanding of the challenges some people face just to get through their day; you get to see life through the eyes of others who may be less fortunate than yourselves and have the added bonus of knowing that you’ve achieved something truly worthwhile at the end of the day. How can this wealth of experience and material fail to do anything other than enhance your writing skills? And your life for that matter?
Most of the writers that I know have to deal with a lot of rejection in their work but a few hours a week doing something that is truly appreciated is a wonderful counter-balance. So, if you can spare the time and are able, find something you’d like to do and please give volunteering a try – I promise you, you’ll not regret it!
Just one word of caution – be sure you only volunteer for genuine bona fide organisations. Unfortunately there are a lot of charlatans out there. I’m sure that whatever country you’re in there will be organisations that can help you find the right thing for you, similar to this one for those living in the UK.