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Helping out is the 'in' thing

YOU make a difference and meet new people at the same time. Sue Conley praises our growing band of community volunteers.

I'm catching up on the American television series Revenge, in which really rich people hang out all day at the beach and at night attend one charity gala or the other. I was struck not only by the tight frocks worn by fifty-something Madeleine Stowe (she looks smashing), but also by the fact that for this fancy crowd at least, helping out has only to do with cold hard cash and pricey floral arrangements.

I am certainly lacking in the Herve Leger bandage dress department and most assuredly unable to chip in 10K for a place at a table, but I've got time, and I've been giving some of it to help out with Riding for the Disabled Ireland, Leopardstown Group.

The association offers the chance for anyone with a physical or intellectual disability to spend some time riding horses, which helps to increase their self-confidence, improve their posture and balance, and learn new things, like how to name all the pieces of tack that make up the horse-riding kit.

Some riders are mounted on horses led by volunteers, and others ride independently. My duties include setting up poles and small jumps, warming up the horses before the lesson, helping the riders to mount and dismount, and generally telling them how well they are doing. And they do so very well and it is so heartwarming and inspiring, that the hours I spend helping out are some of the best hours of my week.


Yvonne McKenna is the CEO of Volunteer Ireland, an organisation that works to promote, celebrate and support volunteering.

"Volunteering is as old as society itself. Since people first began to form communities, the instinct to work collaboratively for the greater good has been practised," she says. "In Ireland, volunteering can be traced back to the caritas tradition of the medieval period, right up to the vast and vibrant community and voluntary sector we have today."

Vibrant it is: between January of 2010 and May of this year, Volunteer Ireland and local centres have seen over 30,000 people register to give their time in excess of one million hours. The most popular categories were those under the heading of 'practical work', and working with older members of the community. That's a lot of hours, and lot of people willing to give of their time and talents, but some organisations need to do some catching up.

"Few organisations were set up to involve volunteers," explains McKenna. "One of the biggest challenges for volunteering is that there aren't enough opportunities to match demand, and working with organisations to create capacity for volunteers is one of our key roles. They were set up to achieve laudable aims, which they tend to do through involving volunteers -- but they need support to ensure that they can do that well."

The fiscal impact that volunteering has for the economy looks good on a spreadsheet -- in 2011, it was to the tune of €9.3m -- but McKenna asserts that its value is beyond measure. "It is the engine that powers over 15,000 charities and community groups across Ireland -- it's hard to imagine our country without volunteers. Each day, thousands of people across the country give their time to help provide vital services, support and fundraising for organisations whose very purpose is to contribute to the public good."


Money is one thing, and time is another, and then the next consideration is, well, space. What if you've got some time you could devote to good works, but you can't get yourself to an equestrian centre, or a hospice, or wherever? How about picking up a pair of knitting needles for a good cause? Drinks company, Innocent is teaming up with Age Action Ireland again, and is sponsoring The Big Knit.

Eamon Timmins is with the charity. "We have up to 2,000 excess winter deaths in Ireland each year," he says. "They do not die from hypothermia, but from cardiovascular and respiratory illness -- cold-related conditions. They die because they cannot afford to heat their homes to a safe level."

The Big Knit raises money so that volunteers can make home visits and do some DIY to make the houses snug, and it funds the charity's yearly public education campaign that disseminates helpful information on how to stay warm during our cold winter months.

Wee knit caps are created by volunteers and for every behatted smoothie sold, innocent donates 25c to Age Action. The company has raised €60,000 since 2008 and the goal is to make 80,000 hats this year. Twice a week, Age Action hosts Knit Ups in their Camden Street premises-- a great way to get started and meet new people.

Riding for the Disabled Ireland: www.rdai.org Volunteer Ireland: www.volunteer.ie Big Knit information can be found on www.innocentdrinks.ie/thebigknit, including links to the instructional video


Yvonne McKenna (below) shares some insider tips

For someone who is interested in starting to volunteer, choosing a cause or organisation can often prove daunting. I think a great first step is to call in to your local Volunteer Centre where people can speak with you and help to figure out what kind of activities or organisations might suit your needs and interests. Volunteer.ie is also a great first port of call, with a national database of volunteering opportunities to browse and useful guides which can help individuals identify what cause or activity might best suit them.


In terms of a time commitment, every volunteering opportunity is different and every organisation will have different requirements. Opportunities can vary from once-off volunteering roles to long-term roles with a bigger time commitment.


Volunteering is a wonderful way of connecting with your community, meeting people, developing skills, adding to your CV and making a difference. For those who are unemployed or underemployed, volunteering is an opportunity to put skills and qualifications to use for great causes.


We would always recommend being up front and honest with an organisation you volunteer with -- if you feel that you are no longer in a position to volunteer, give the organisation adequate notice to allow them to find a replacement.