You get back more than you give when you volunteer

Irish Examiner

03.03.17/ Reporter Gwen Loughman

Gwen Loughman looks at the social and psychological impact volunteering has on everyone involved

Daughter and mother Karen and Sally - Ann O' Neill volunteering at Barretstown Castle. Pic: Brian Gavin Press 22
Daughter and mother Karen and Sally – Ann O’ Neill volunteering at Barretstown Castle. Pic: Brian Gavin Press 22

“The human impact of volunteering is massive”

These are the words of Derek Fanning, manager of Tipperary Volunteer Centre who believes it is the small things we don’t see that can leave the biggest imprint on someone’s life. “It’s not a one size fits all. Our job is to find the role that suits. It could be as simple as going into a charity shop and arranging clothes for a half an hour. We’re not talking about 30 hours a week. My mantra for a while now has been to look at volunteering as an exchange.”

Clinical psychologist Clare Kambamettu says volunteering affects mental health in several positive ways.

“It is a form of social participation which enhances our sense of community, promotes integration and generates more opportunities to meet people, have conversations and make friends. All things we know are good for us. Additionally, volunteering can be an outlet for pro-activity in a modern world that is rife with social injustice and human suffering.

“Sometimes it’s easy to feel down about the extent of these issues but volunteering leaves us feeling like we can make a difference, we are not helpless and we can bring joy to the lives of others. I have never heard anybody regret being able to do something like that.”

There are many and varied reasons why people choose to volunteer. For some it can be viewed as a social outlet, others might use it as an opportunity to gain experience in an area they are unsure of before making a commitment. Volunteering can also promote a worthy cause and then there are others who see it simply as a means of giving back to the community.

Sally-Ann O’Neill’s daughter Karen was diagnosed with leukaemia when she was 16. She spent a week at Barretstown in Co Kildare, a specially designed camp that offers free short breaks for children and their families who are affected by severe illnesses primarily cancer and serious blood diseases. Over 1,700 volunteers, also known as ‘Cara’s’ (the Irish word for friend) are needed to help support the camp programmes this year.

“She came out and was ecstatic about the place.” Sally-Ann says of her daughter’s experience there. Karen later decided to become a volunteer and suggested that Sally- Ann follow suit.

“It’s not many things teenagers ask you to go along to and do,” says Sally- Ann. “Usually they don’t want their parents around so I went down and we volunteered together the first time.”

Volunteers help children to have fun at Barretstown
Volunteers help children to have fun at Barretstown


Sally-Ann has been a regular volunteer ever since and now that she is retired, she would like to offer more of her time.

“It is magical — a Barretstown bubble — and you don’t know what’s going on in the world outside because there are no phones or technical games. It’s back to old fashioned board games and fun. You have to be there to experience it. You are giving your time and you can see first-hand where your time is going. The families are very appreciative of the time you’ve given.”

Padraic Dunne, counsellor and psychotherapist (www.feelbetterstaybetter.com), supports the view that a change in perspective can help.

“Volunteering allows a new focus on the present moment. Anxiety and depression often emerge from persistent focusing on past events or future possibilities; dwelling on the negativities can lock a person into a profoundly anxious and/or depressed state. Therefore, switching daily focus to the present moment, through volunteering allows some respite from thinking about the past or present.”

Helen O’Donnell is chair on the Limerick Tidy Towns committee and feels the rewards gained from volunteering far outweigh what is put in. “There is an enormous sense of satisfaction when things go well.” She says. “Obviously, you would have challenges and there are days when things don’t go perfectly but you meet a very different group of people to perhaps those you work with or live with. You get to know a completely new circle of friends.”

Clare Kambamettu backs up the theory that reaching out to others without expecting something in return can help us to feel good about ourselves. “Volunteering is a self-validating experience. By that I mean it can build and confirm positive beliefs about ourselves, eg ‘I am a good person’, ‘I am a person of value’, ‘I am kind’. These beliefs alongside others are the cornerstones of good self-esteem.”

Derek Fanning believes, historically, volunteering was giving away something for nothing but he is seeing a change. “The main reason for people volunteering was to give something back or make a difference. It’s changing though. If you can give people a half an hour of kindness, that’s a start. It goes from there. I know people who have volunteered in youth clubs and their friendships have lasted so long, they’ve been to the weddings of the kids they mentored.”

Helen O’Donnell has seen people initially giving their time and then deciding they have something else they would like to prioritise. “It’s very interesting because you see those people then in their new role and it works out very well for them.”

Helen O’Donnell chairperson of Limerick Tidy Towns
Helen O’Donnell chairperson of Limerick Tidy Towns

She contends that whilst volunteering might not be for everyone, there is always cause to celebrate achievements and to acknowledge people volunteerism. “Here in Tidy Towns we would do that by having coffee mornings because it’s more than just work, there is a social side to it as well.”

When it comes to community and giving back, Helen has this to say. “For us in Tidy Towns the satisfaction we get out of it would be to improve results year on year. People say they feel the place looks better and those who have been away come back and say we’re making a difference. That gives you satisfaction and motivates you to keep going.”

We all lead busy lives and it can be difficult to find time to volunteer and harder still, knowing where to begin.

Derek Fanning says asking why is a good starting point. “The first thing I would ask is, why do you want to volunteer? And really probe into why. There is no wrong answer because it’s you and I am convinced there is a role there for everyone.”

Helen O’Donnell recognises meeting a group of people for the first time can be intimidating. “But you get to know people and it isn’t like you’re the only person there. Others will be joining at that time. Give it a try.”

It’s not only volunteers that can reap the rewards of their philanthropy.

“From a scientific perspective,” says Clare Kambamettu, “it has been found that volunteering decreases mortality, improves the mental health, life satisfaction, social interaction, healthy behaviours and coping skills of the volunteer. The researchers also found evidence to suggest that service users on the receiving end of volunteerism experience improvements in self-esteem, disease management and acceptance, parenting skills, mental health, healthy behaviours and improved relationships.”

Interested in Volunteering at  Barretstown? Volunteer today by email Andrea HERE 

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