Thursday 23 May 2019

A helping high: Why we're still a nation of willing volunteers

With a million people freely giving their time to worthy causes, Ireland has the highest rate of volunteers in Europe, writes Tanya Sweeney

Duty calls: Gemma Guerin volunteers with the Order of Malta. Photo: Barry Cronin
Duty calls: Gemma Guerin volunteers with the Order of Malta. Photo: Barry Cronin

Tanya Sweeney

We've been trained for several scenarios, including and especially this one. But there's something about this woman's tone on this phonecall that immediately pulls me off guard.

"I intend to take my own life tonight," she informs me, a bald statement of fact.

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Emotional sweat forms on my brow. I feel like I've rounded a corner at night to find someone standing on the lip of a bridge. The reality is, I'm in a Dublin office, listening on a phone line via a listening service for people with anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges.

I attempt to get more information out of her, mainly to keep her on the line. Has she felt like this for a while? Is there anyone else in the house with her? How can we keep her safe for tonight? The caller promptly hangs up, leaving the air in our office heavy. We did our best, we reason. We will wonder about her all evening, and long after the volunteering shift is over.

To say that there's barely a dull moment on a helpline like this is a threadbare cliché, but it's a cliché for a reason. The concerns of the callers run a bewilderingly long gamut. We're all aware, in some way, that there are Irish people living in real isolation, whether psychological, geographical, accidental, self-imposed. Yet to be made aware of their muted desperation, or their resignation, if you want a better understanding of how complex the human condition is, this is the place.

There is no 'good' call to receive, but the call from the person who rings up, frustrated and utterly at a loss as to what to do, and then leaves the conversation with something resembling a road-map to recovery, is among the most gratifying. It's a cliché: you get out more of volunteering than you put in.

Gemma Guerin (31), from Kells, echoes this sentiment, despite becoming an 'accidental' volunteer for the local chapter of the Order of Malta a decade ago. "My now-husband was asked to come along as they were short of drivers, and one day I asked, 'Can I pop along to see what the craic is?' After that, I got stuck right in."

Now, Gemma is the Officer in Charge, meaning that she has to undertake plenty of admin, in addition to her hands-on volunteering with the service. With a son Dylan (5) and a full-time job in eBay, the question has to be asked: where does she even find the time to volunteer?

"I really enjoy it, so I don't have another hobby - this is essentially it," she notes. "I got so much training from the Order of Malta, and I got my EMT license, so this is my way of giving back for that training. It's lucky that my husband Michael is also involved, and understands the time element I have to give."

As with most volunteers, some of her charges linger in the memory longer than others: "When the pope was visiting, we met one lovely lady who'd had a nasty fall - turns out she was a nun who had travelled to the Phoenix Park on her own. Two weeks later, she sent us a letter and remembered us all by name, despite being in agony at the time. That made me well up, but that happens very often. It's why we do it."

Yet for every happy ever after, there are others that Gemma remembers for different reasons: "When we do patient transfers (from people's homes to hospitals), you see the really lonely side of things. At high risk events like motorcycle events, there is death and some members have had to see it, but fortunately there's a very good support system in place for volunteers here."

Nina Arwitz, CEO of Volunteer Ireland, notes that people volunteer for several reasons: "The main reason people say they want to volunteer is to make the world or their community a better place. It makes you feel good - it's referred to as a 'helper's high'," she explains. "There are those that volunteer for causes they are passionate about, or they might have had a family member with a specific health problem."

Fiona Cunnane, National Volunteer Programme Manager with the Irish Wheelchair Association, recently surveyed her 700-strong bank of full-time volunteers about their reasons for getting involved. Eighty two per cent said that their friendships had increased and they felt a real sense of community. Others are doing courses in social care and might volunteer as part of a work placement, but love it so much that they stay on."

"Seventy per cent said their teamwork skills had improved, while 68pc said that their communications skills had improved," she says. "In terms of migrants, the statistics for them volunteering tend to be quite high - they are keen to learn the language and integrate into society, while some of them come from a culture where volunteering is the norm," observes Arwitz.

Yet in Irish culture, volunteering is ingrained in society: "We're a nation of volunteers," affirms Arwitz. "Rates stay steady in terms of 28-30pc of the population - we have the highest per capita rate of volunteers in Europe and 9th in the world."

And at last count, there are around a million Irish people undertaking voluntary roles, clocking in 232.8 million hours of manpower a year. According to Volunteer Ireland, which this week is marking National Volunteering Week, the demographic is getting younger every year: around 16.8pc of them are aged between 15 and 24, 21pc are aged between 25 and 34, and 35pc are aged between 35 and 44. Four in five of them rated their happiness at 'very high' or 'high'. A growing body of research has established a strong link between volunteering and health and wellbeing.

The economic climate can cause a slight flux: "Volunteering rates shoot up when there's more unemployment as people have more time, very simply. We're are in a boom right now, and you might expect volunteering rates to drop, but right now there's a natural ebb and flow that's not too concerning."

You might think that other latter-day factors - among them, garda vetting, GDPR and longer working days - might affect the uptake in volunteer positions. Yet Cunnane notes that they don't affect interest in volunteering at IWA. And Arwitz notes that, in a wider sense, the supply of roles hasn't in fact caught up with demand.

"A quarter of our volunteers have been with us for over 10 years," says Cunnane. "We want to make things as easy on them as possible so we provide training days on GDPR, for instance, if it's relevant to the role."

There are 22,500 not-for-profit organisations in Ireland at the moment, many of which rely on the people power that volunteers provide. According to the National Survey of Volunteer Involving Organisations, 59pc of organisations said that the organisation would not survive without volunteers.

For the time-pressed, or those who don't see themselves in traditional volunteering roles, the nature of volunteering has widened out so as to benefit a number of different parties.

Micro-volunteering is on the rise, and requires a commitment of just 2-5 minutes. It can be a one-off piece of work, like counting bee flowers online (with Count Flowers for Bees, which helps to create a flower map of Ireland to help conserve insects). Others sign up to the Be My Eyes app: Professing to 'bring sight to blind and low-vision people', the free app connects visually impaired people with sighted volunteers for visual assistance through a live video call. Another micro-volunteering initiative, Post Pals (postpals.co.uk) aims to lift the spirits of ill children by sending them cards, small gifts, letters and emails. For others, volunteering is a way to combine a sport, hobby or creative impulse with the chance to do good. The Blue Teapot theatre company in Galway enables people with intellectual disabilities to get involved in the performing arts, and relies on volunteers (blueteapot.ie), while the Lakers - a recreational club for people with special needs - regularly put on theatre productions at the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, and often need help behind the scenes (lakers.ie).

For something different, there's scope to become a 'Reminiscence Volunteer' at St Josephs' Hospital in Ardee (irishnursinghomes.ie); people visit the care facility for a couple of hours a week and chat with residents about the good old days, and listen as they recount stories from their own youth.

"The first piece of advice I'd give is to find a cause you really care about, not what you think people expect you to do," says Arwit. "If it's enjoyable, you'll be doing something you get so much back from."

For more information on Volunteer Ireland, see volunteer.ie

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