From the 1st-7th June is National Volunteers Week and as a Voluntary Services Manager this is a big deal on a professional level but for me it’s also a personal one too. It’s a moment for me to acknowledge how far I’ve come; it’s easy when work is hectic and my love life is a mess to lose sight of what I have achieved in the past year and a half but as I was giving a speech to a hundred volunteers it made me realise that I have totally smashed it.
In my speech I shared that I had started out in Voluntary Services at the recommendation of my CPN (Community Psychiatric Nurse) who essentially was like ‘you kind of need to be doing something with all this free time…’. He was totally right, my hair was hacked off from a manic moment of stupidity, I’d gained tons of weight which I was very self conscious of and my confidence was so low I hated going to the shop for milk. I could barely look people in the eye (unless I was manic in which case I was looking people in the eye waaay too much) and that just wasn’t me. As you may have noticed I’m pretty open and chatty and all of a sudden I was this meek, terrified shell of a person. I applied to volunteer and when the Manager eventually got back to me I noted she clearly had a high workload and might need a hand. Because I’m drawn to highlighters, stationary and a spreadsheet, supporting with admin seemed like a good start. The Manager talked me down from my first instinct which was to fill every single day of the week with volunteering and we settled on a few hours a week of admin for Voluntary Services.
Since graduating I’d been completely frustrated by my inability to do anything, finishing my final year of University whilst in a psychiatric Day Hospital had been a push and I remember sobbing over the fact I could barely retain a sentence let alone write a paragraph. I’d always been pretty academic and I had already pushed through a difficult period when my boyfriend at the time had become unwell in my second year of University, I was determined not to fail at the final hurdle but it was a huge struggle. When I eventually graduated I’d given myself 6 months to get on top of my mental health and then I’d start work, my friends will tell you I love a good (and often unreasonable) deadline. My CPN did a kind of mumbled ‘that seems unlikely, you may need to readjust your expectations…’ which I ignored. When the 6 months was up I applied for jobs and got interviews but was so terrified at the prospect of being expected to literally turn up every day or be fired that I didn’t make most of them. I was still hugely struggling with my insomnia, self harm and suicidal ideations that it seemed absurd that I should manage that as well as a job, it was a job in itself.
Like my CPN said my expectation was way off and 6 months ended up being about 6 years, disappointing but he was also right about something else, volunteering was life saving for me. Volunteering allowed me to build my confidence and get comfortable with my skills again without the pressure of being paid. I was expected to come in but I wasn’t obligated to and that felt far safer and relaxed than paid work. If I slept terribly we just changed the day I was due in and if my seizures were bad or my stomach issues weren’t great I just came in later in the day to accommodate that. The flexibility allowed me to become more consistent because I didn’t feel any pressure from anyone I volunteered with. Both Managers I had during this time supported me fully and kept me in check, if I was a little high (which by the way meant I was pretty efficient and an absolute filing machine) then they simply kept tabs to make sure things were ok.
Eventually I built this up into part time hours and then after a few years became paid as an Administrator. Since then I’ve been a Voluntary Services Recruitment and Training Coordinator (worlds longest title), a Voluntary Services Coordinator and now a Manager. I feel so passionate about volunteering because I’ve seen the reciprocal benefits first hand. Of course volunteering is about giving back and creating meaning for those you support but it’s a two way street. Volunteering also allows us as an organisation to engage with our community, form connections between volunteers, reduce loneliness and isolation and support people with building their confidence and skills. Volunteers are integral to the running of organisations, particularly charities and smaller companies which are so reliant on the generosity of local supporters.
As I looked around during my speech on Sunday I saw so many smiling and reassuring faces, volunteers that I get to spend time with daily, weekly, monthly and even once a year, but all amazing people that I truly consider part of my team. It made me realise how hard it is to share our stories and life experiences in setting which aren’t mental health orientated, even if they are mental health supportive. In the past I’ve been happy to share my story but in my new job I’ve worried about how people will perceive me and my competency. Sharing my story to a room full of people who weren’t involved in mental health was daunting but the response I had afterwards reconfirmed my belief that we all share a common humanity. The number of people that shared their own stories with me afterwards was amazing and reminded me that we all have life experiences which shape our personalities and intentions in the world. It’s easy as a member of staff to feel you need to put on a front in order to seem capable but the reality is that by sharing your truest self you open yourself to connecting with people on a meaningful level.
For National Volunteers Week I take a moment to acknowledge the hard work I have put in to building my career but also the amazing volunteers I get to support every day and that support so many fantastic charities and organisations in my local area. For anyone that is considering volunteering I’d highly recommend using the Do-it site (No it’s not a Nike website, that would be an odd thing to recommend), It’s a great resource for finding volunteering opportunities in your area, click HERE for more information.
Please do feel free to share as I’d love the world to be volunteering but I’ll settle for encouraging the smaller number of people within my network!