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Making a difference can start with just putting up our hands

There is an old Greek proverb: A civilisation flourishes when people plant trees under which they will never sit. It neatly sums up the double benefit of volunteering. The 'giver' ends up being on the receiving end of a deeply positive and life-affirming experience.

I believe passionately in the power of the 'meitheal'. This means people working together for the greater good in a spirit of social solidarity and civic responsibility. If we can harness the sum of our people's talents, we are unstoppable as a nation. Recovery means harnessing the potential of Irish men and women of every age and ability.

Volunteers come from every background and from every walk of life. Volunteering is not just the preserve of those with time or energy to spare. This is not just true in my own organisation of Special Olympics, but across the whole range of voluntary organisations.

I recently bumped into an old acquaintance I had not seen in almost five years. While she was one of the first people you would go to with raffle tickets or sponsorship cards, she never really seemed the volunteering type. This is why I was surprised when she told me how she had started volunteering at a local residential home for the elderly.

There she met a woman in her 90s who was withdrawn and unwilling to engage. Eventually, over five or six visits, a relationship started to form and the woman told my friend her life story, where she was born and raised. It happened to be the very same midlands village that my friend's recently deceased grandmother had come from. Both women had been friends from their earliest days, right up until their 20s. What followed was a wonderful series of stories from first communions to first kisses. My friend is hooked. She marvels at the treasure trove that she has stumbled upon out of the blue.

I tell the story to sum up one of the great joys of volunteerism for me. It is only a single illustration but encapsulates the key elements of community giving, sharing and volunteering at a very basic level.

Through my work with Special Olympics and the Taskforce on Active Citizenship, I meet thousands of extraordinary people in our communities across Ireland -- all of them changing and bettering the lives and circumstances of their fellow citizens in countless ways. Volunteers and community activists are people who see gaps in

services or opportunities missed and rather than sitting there cursing the darkness, decide to go and get things done.

This weekend sees the start of the EU Year of Volunteering: 2011 has been designated to recognise the greatness of volunteers and to encourage more in our communities to make a difference.

The collapse in the property market coupled with the implosion in global and domestic banking has changed our country dramatically. Incomes are falling while unemployment rises. Involuntary emigration has made an unwelcome return as the best hope for many of our youngest and brightest. The social cost of this means worry and uncertainty dominates the lives of so many.

These new circumstances make the encouragement of active citizenship and volunteering all the more important. It is now, when people need reassurance and support, when our communities can be touchstones for inspiration, that community giving must be encouraged.

There are almost one million volunteers working with Special Olympics across the world, and more than 24,000 here in Ireland. They may be unpaid but their worth is priceless. Their giving enriches our athletes and encourages others to do likewise.

We were all inspired by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded Special Olympics in the Sixties. She was a talented and driven woman who made a lasting contribution to the world around her. She created opportunity and choice for marginalised people and their families. At that time, the potential of people with an intellectual disability was not recognised. Exclusion was the norm, dignity and respect only a dream. They were hidden from public view and disowned by their families in some cases. Unfortunately, in the work I do now in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, that is still a familiar scenario. So breaking that taboo in the US and in many countries around the world by the most powerful family in the US proved a catalyst for change.

Here today, when we think of our own lives and our own jobs, we should think of the powerful good we can do and how that good can be multiplied when it is linked with others. More than ever, we need to motivate, empower and communicate. Whatever barriers we face as a society, we must stand on the foundations of common values -- values that I strongly believe in -- solidarity, inclusion and a sense of equality.

When President John F. Kennedy came to Ireland with Eunice in June 1963, he said "what sets the Irish apart is their unique combination of hope, confidence and imagination". It is this quality which President Kennedy saw in us that we need more than ever today. There is no doubt the will to engage in community life is there. It appears to be increasing, though there is work to be done perhaps in harnessing that will in ways which will encourage greater participation of all sectors in a truly democratic society.

Booker T Washington said "If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else". I think this would be a good mantra for all of us in 2011. Every Irish man and woman, of every background, creed and ability, has a role to play in our national recovery. Volunteering gives us the power to live that role.

Mary Davis is managing director of Special Olympics Europe/Eurasia, chairperson of Ireland's Taskforce on Active Citizenship and member of the President's Council of State.

Sunday Independent