8 May 2016

How Volunteering Changed My Life

Location: Bolgatanga, Upper Eastern region of Ghana, West Africa

In May 2013 I came home from university unemployed for the summer. I'd just turned 20 and once my birthday was out of the way, I didn't have any money to go clubbing, which made me extremely sad and bored. Instead of sitting around, I saw that my local charity shop was looking for volunteers to give up an afternoon each week, so I decided to apply. Now I can't go and sugar coat it: it was mind numbingly dull. I did shifts between two of the charity's shops as they were both on the same road, one sold books and the other clothes and bric-a-brac. All I did was stock and sit on the till, however, I don't regret doing it as I made some mates and it filled in a section on my CV. You'll be glad to know reader that during working at the charity shops, unpaid, I did find a job as a waitress and barmaid at my local pub. However, our story doesn't end there...

I'd tried to get into voluntary work during my teens, it never quite went down very well, though. I was the type of teenager that always said I'd do things but didn't always see them through to the very end, I was always willing to get out of bed and go and do something, but if it didn't really go to plan then I just kinda shrugged it off as 'it wasn't meant to be'. These days, I'm more of a go-getter. 

I left the charity shops because I was going back to university, but when I was coming up to graduating the following summer, I decided that I wanted to apply for something else that was a bit of a bigger scale. I found a charity called vInspired and at the time they had a leadership program called 'Team V'. I applied and had an interview and was successful, and then it was time to well... lead. The aim of the game was to recruit a bunch of volunteers in your area and campaign for change. The first campaign was ridiculously stressful. We held a food drive and raised food donations for my local food bank, over £200 for the charity The Trussell Trust, and raised awareness in the community about food poverty. Sounds a doddle I'm sure, but it was really difficult, I did win a certificate however for our hard work which I was chuffed about in the end.

The best thing I gained from doing the leadership program was self-belief. I realised that if I actually put the time in, and fight for something when it goes wrong instead of just shrugging my shoulders, I can actually do something worthwhile. Using that first campaign as an example, I managed to not only make myself aware but make other people in my community aware that food poverty even is a thing in this country. The day I went down with all the food we'd collected was incredible, there were just boxes and boxes of it, and I felt proud knowing that I'd helped to feed people in the local area. It was hard work running a campaign like that, but nothing worthwhile is easy, and I definitely got out what I put in.

The following Summer I decided that I wanted to experience working abroad, and again I started seeking out volunteer opportunities. I found an agency that worked with charities and sent an application form, and long story short I went for an interview and gained a place to head out to Ghana for a twelve-week placement starting January 2016. When I found out, it was September 2015, and the whirlwind began. Before I got out to Ghana, I had to hit a fundraising target of £800. It was really stressful and a massive learning curve for me. I arranged a Christmas party at a local pub for my family and friends, pestered everyone through social media and got two of my friends to come along and bucket collect with me on Black Friday in the rain (legends). It was really hard and at times I was close to tears, but in the end, I managed to exceed my goal raising £820. When I'd done it, I realised what an amazing thing it was. I'd raised a tonne of money for a charity that changed the lives of those less fortunate, and I'd set a target and absolutely smashed it. That was something that I feel really helped my character.

And so I began this year by flying out to Ghana. I massively underestimated it, I really did. I knew it was going to be a bit of a challenge, but for the first week I was out there I feared I'd made a huge mistake. It was hard, life out there was hard, and the culture shock was something that at first I just could not handle. The experience wasn't amazing every day, I had issues with my living arrangements, I couldn't always cope with the climate, on my fourth week I got Malaria, and some evenings I really did go home and cry wondering what I'd done to myself. Looking back on the experience now, I'm ridiculously proud of myself. I worked with a great team out there, helped some incredible people, and allowed myself to meet people with different viewpoints and backgrounds, eat different food and have brand new adventures.

I'm so happy I chose to sit behind a till for no money one summer because under three years later, I've worked in two charity shops, led two campaigns and worked in a developing country for twelve weeks - and I've actually contributed to doing something positive. From just a hobby to kill some time whilst I looked for a job, volunteering has become a passion and something that I'm really glad I've attained. Working for money is a necessity, but working to better people, animals, the environment; whatever it may be, working for change is priceless.

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