I’ve been volunteering for military charities for over 3 years and it’s been a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Now that I’m devoting less time to it, I’m reflecting on the experience and how it changed me.
Everyone has a different reason for getting into voluntary work; for me the opportunity came after 4 terrible years of supporting my husband looking after his mother in our own home after her diagnosis of dementia. Now I understand the phrase ‘soul-destroying’ because the 24/7 worry nearly broke my spirit by challenging me to my very core. I had considered myself a caring and competent person, particularly in helping people with mental health difficulties, but I just couldn’t do it. It left me low in confidence and feeling pretty worthless.
After my mother-in-law moved into full-time care the opportunity came along to work with Race2Recovery. I didn’t realise at the time that it was a way of keeping busy to avoid thinking too much, getting depressed and angry. Over 3 years I was very involved in all aspects of PR and marketing for the R2R team, mainly managing their social media. It took me on average about 8 hours per week, mainly evenings and weekends, I fitted it around a full time academic job and looking after my family.
It was extraordinarily stressful at times. We had set ourselves an almost impossible task; to raise the money and pull together a team to attempt the Dakar Rally. There were moments of intense frustration and heartbreak. But the positive outcomes were many, particularly being part of a close team pulling together for a shared goal. I loved making friends and acquaintances around the world. Being a part of the team that got the first ever combat-injured competitors across the finish line of the Dakar Rally was amazing. I will never forget the emotion of that moment shared globally with thousands of supporters.
I learnt new skills, gradually mastering various social media and becoming successful in creating a virtual community of followers which had reached over 32,000 on Facebook when I signed off. I had the privilege of working with professional PR and marketing people who were unfailing in their kindness and support for an amateur who started out not having a clue.
The feeling that I could make a difference to people’s lives by sharing information that might inspire and motivate people to achieve more in their lives was very fulfilling. As an occupational therapist it was a wonderful way to do my job. I also got a different, less selfish, perspective on life by seeing how my team mates coped with what fate had thrown at them. I also learnt a whole new language of military slang and found myself swearing more readily than ever before.
There were negatives of course. I was very naïve about the charity sector and had assumed that everyone had a heart of gold. But I learnt more about the darker side of human nature. I came across a very small number of people using charity work to commit fraud by exploiting vulnerable people and the goodwill of the general public. This is disgraceful. I have also observed many others who mean well, but through incompetence and poor organisation, end up wasting public money and causing real harm by ‘having a go’ at helping.
Charities must be managed in a business-like way in order for the funding to be obtained and spent well. Without good forward planning and clear governance vulnerable people can be let down. I have issues, however, with businesses being registered as charities when in fact they exist to support large salaries and extravagant lifestyles. Although within the letter of the law they stretch the meaning of not making a ‘profit’.
Research tells us that volunteering is good for the individual and for our communities. The benefits identified are echoed in my experiences above. It’s also supposed to help your CV and employment prospects. The Government have wholeheartedly got behind the idea of volunteers taking on care in the community but this, of course, becomes vital in a society where public services are increasingly underfunded. We can’t all be volunteers all of the time though and not earning a living is not an option for the average person. Volunteering is not going to solve the problem of a lack of care for the vulnerable people in our communities. Rehabilitation and recovery are complex processes that require qualified and professionally registered staff. I’m not saying thousands of them, because they are an expensive resource, but a few well-placed healthcare professionals can make a big difference to the effectiveness of ‘help’ being provided.
Having said that, the world would be a better place if we helped out each other more and it doesn’t have to be a huge commitment in time or money. Small acts of kindness can take little time and small amounts of money. Buying a homeless person a coffee for example is quick and simple. As is saying hello to an elderly neighbour. I feel strongly that caring and charity should be about doing things for others not just giving money. Caring by doing benefits everyone.
I now volunteer for The Baton; a charity that is about a message of caring and we do not prioritise fund raising. If people spontaneously donate then the money is used for small, immediate grants to help people in need. It is a much smaller and more manageable time commitment for me. I also offer support to other small charities and individuals who are helping combat injured men and women on an ad hoc basis. I am fortunate to have a home, a job and an awesome family; my life could have turned out so differently. I feel that I have a duty to make a difference and help others to get the most out of life.
So, I have no regrets for my time spent as a volunteer with Race2Recovery. I have made life-long, precious friends and I will never resent the commitment and sacrifices that I’ve made.
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