“What person rides a broom and wears a pointy hat?” I ask. Daniel, a sweet autistic boy, looks at me with a severe look of concentration on his face. “A Witch?” he retorts, with confidence. Daniel is an incredibly intelligent boy who has been exchanging riddles with me for the last few days. There have been animal related ones too. I am very close to being at a loss, but Daniel gives the impression he could keep testing me for quite a while longer. If you are trying to picture it, make sure you add a distinct aura of happiness around me.
Its 3pm and I am sitting in the foyer of Norton Park, a mecca for small local charity headquarters in Edinburgh. Daniel’s mum was due to pick him up an hour ago. 11 other teenage boys have been whisked away with bags full of muddied clothes, beaming smiles and a wide variety of learning difficulties that have had no bearing on the fun they’ve been having. As a steady stream of characters interact around us, nothing other than Daniel and our game really exists for me. The ‘first world’ troubles of my life don’t mean a jot to me as I try to figure out who is dead and wrapped in toilet paper (an Egyptian Mummy or, specifically, Tutankhamen). His mum finally saves me from inevitable defeat to the word wizard and my week of volunteering is finished.
Its time to introduce myself: I’m Darren and I’m a volunteer. Today I’ll be standing up and talking about my weekly act of giving, receiving, and sacrificing. My particular ‘self-help group’ is called FABB (Facilitating Access Breaking Barriers) and for nearly 60 years, they have been working to give disabled children and young people access to sport, leisure and outdoor adventures. I’ve been a regular attendee for five years now and in addition to my regular fun-filled Wednesday nights I also help with annual respite breaks too.
This makes me one of a slowly, and worryingly, declining number of people currently using some of their energy, experience and valued ‘couch potato’ time to help those less fortunate in all their shapes and sizes. The facts and figures show that although roughly 1.2 million people volunteered last year (which is a measly 28% of the 16+ population and sadly down from 31% in 2010), most of that was done on an annual basis. In comparison – and not to stir the nationalistic ire – it’s currently 44% in England, and is perhaps a dent in any moral superiority we may have on the community spirit front. Even worse, only 12% of the nation are addicted on a weekly basis like me. This is cause for lament. In fact, it is both depressing and disappointing in equal measure.
It’s easy to talk about how necessary volunteering is in terms of public service, how it’s vital due to recent public sector cuts (don’t get me started) and how it contributes £2.6 billion to the Scottish economy. But we should also talk about the mental, and soulful, benefits for the person doing the volunteering. Multiple studies have proven that volunteering can significantly improve self-esteem, help build new friendships and combat depression.
It’s Monday morning and as I enter the room to a cacophony of general excitement and parental mutterings. I hear distinctly “It’s Darren, the most joyous boy in the world”. This is how I am known by Daniel and in a variety of similar guises by several other members of the group who already know me. The instant gratification I receive is priceless and its positive effect on me cannot be understated.
As a person that regularly wallows in self-remorse and depression, that kind of moniker has a nice ring to it. Joy is a definite part of me, a part I very much like, but sadly it isn’t aired as often and as freely as it should be. Sometimes I feel abler to be ‘joyous Darren’ at FABB than in public with my friends and family.
Volunteering therefore gives me a perfect excuse to be joyous, less self-conscious and perhaps more myself than in ‘real’ life. Don’t we all need, and deserve, that excuse? Wouldn’t you like to spend a little time each week helping someone else and yourself at the same time? Does watching The Great British Bake Off bring you the joy you want?
If you aren’t yet convinced as to the benefits that volunteering can offer, I’d like to briefly outline the week I just had. I walked, I talked, I saw military submarines, seals and herons, I kayaked, I burn walked and I relearned ‘five little piggies’ with a big friendly giant called Simon, I helped Andrew, a blushing teenager with a boyhood crush and counselled Steven about the severe bullying he receives due, in main, to his medically bad teeth. I was called “joyous”, “ginger bearded”, “cuddle bear” and mocked for my distinct lack of footballing ability.
As a wise man once said ‘you reap what you sow’ and I can honestly tell you that my harvest this week was good and bountiful. I hope to continue reaping the benefits for many years to come.
Darren Pike is an experienced charity fundraiser and presently works for the Garvald charity in Edinburgh. To learn more about their work please visit their website. To find out how you can support FAAB please find further information here.
For further information on volunteering opportunities in your area, please visit here.