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Volunteers Week: why helping others helps me

I was asked to share my experience of volunteering as a mentor for The Albert Kennedy Trust with some employees of a bank recently. I wasn't sure where to begin so I found myself sharing the story of how I got into volunteering. As it's Volunteers week I thought I'd share my journey with you here, why I started and how helping others helps me.


Getting Started: Finding what I didn't know was missing

When I started volunteering I'd lived in Manchester for about 4 or 5 years. I figured that I'd make friends once I'd settled in at work. But I found myself getting up in the morning, commuting from Stockport and being keen to travel straight back home again in the evening. It turns out everyone else working in the city centre does the same so no one really socialised after work.  I didn't know anyone in Stockport except my wife and didn't connect with anyone in Manchester outside of work. At first, we focused on buying a house but once we'd settled in I felt I was missing something. It was only then that I realised that I didn't even know what I was missing until I didn't have it. 

Thinking back, I've always been involved with the local community in some way wherever I've lived. Whether that's through scouting, football or some other hobby.  I hadn't realised that's what it was at the time but when I didn't have it I missed feeling part of something bigger than myself and feeling connected to the local community.  I decided I volunteering could be a good way to feel part of the community in Manchester. 

Developing skills

At the same time, I was looking for a new way to broaden my skills outside of my industry.  I had spent a lot of time and money developing my skills in coaching and training and I was looking to broaden them further by applying them in a different context. I had years of experience of applying my skills in Finance but got to the point where I wanted to put them to good use elsewhere with a different audience in order to stretch myself and grow. I thought that there must be a charity out there who could make use of my skills and experience. I figured mentoring might be something I could offer. I could contribute something valuable and at the same time develop myself. 

I researched a few different mentoring schemes but some just weren't right. Some were in my industry but didn't inspire me. Some were national schemes rather than regional. Some were in areas close to my heart but not face to face or on a one to one basis which didn't suit me. Once I started telling people what I was looking for people soon started pointing me in the right direction and a colleague mentioned that AKT were looking for mentors. It was a perfect fit me.

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Added benefits: being with inspiring people

Fairly soon after I started mentoring I started attending the regular mentor training sessions. My first one was after a long day at work.  I was mentally and physically exhausted. I was ready to drop and really could have done without another meeting. I wasn't in the mood at all but in the meeting, I met other volunteers. I had a great time. I loved hearing their stories and about the impact they were having. It was great to be a room full of inspiring people who share my values and passions. Far from leaving more tired, I left buzzing. I feel the same time every time we meet. I quickly learnt that wherever you find volunteers you find inspirational people. 

And it's not just the volunteers. The young people I meet are such an inspiration too. They are more open to being challenged than older adults and often when I think I'm having a tough time, I'm inspired by the attitude of young people facing up to harder challenges with fewer resources. They really are amazing. You can discuss anything in mentoring but they are the ones who have to take action. 

A new perspective

Volunteering has introduced me to such a variety of people. I've met people from different walks of life and different cultures who face challenges I never knew existed. I think it's easy to live in your own little bubble. Because we tend to socialise with people like us we fall into the trap of assuming that most of the world shares our values and think and act like we do. Being self-employed, I get a bit more control over who I associate with than most people. Needless to say, I don't hang around with many homophobic people. It's easy for me to think that kicking people out of home for being gay is a relic of a bygone era, sadly it isn't. 

Working with young people has been good for me too. It's so easy to forget how little you really know of the world as a teenager. I think if I didn't volunteer with young people I'd believe what I read in the media about them.  I'd have a more damning view of people on benefits, people in care and just young people in general.


No going back

It's been a great few years since I started volunteering and there's no going back. I see myself always volunteering somewhere in some capacity. If you've ever considered volunteering I'd recommend it. Everyone has something to offer, there's something out there for you. I think sometimes people think they don't have time to volunteer or perhaps they have a fixed idea of what volunteering is (maybe it's something they've been guilt-tripped into before) but I think if you find the right opportunity it's as rewarding and energising for you as it is for the people you support.

Michelle PrattComment