Keren David

Volunteering is a boon for the volunteer, too

There’s a crisis in recruiting people to help good causes, which is bad news for everyone

May 24, 2023 14:21

Several times every month my daughter gets up at 5am and goes off to cook breakfast for 30 or so strangers. She serves their food, she lays the tables, she washes up. She makes tea and coffee, eggs and toast. Sometimes she even cleans the bathrooms. Then she goes off to the office for a full day’s work.

This is not an entrepreneurial side-hustle carried out alongside her regular job at a City bank. She’s a volunteer at a hostel for homeless people, one of a team of people who help to run this service.

In doing this, she’s going against a trend. Depressingly, the wave of community spirit that we heard so much about during lockdown didn’t last. Fewer of us are volunteering our time and efforts. Charities are reporting that it’s difficult to find and retain new volunteers. National Volunteer Week takes place from June 1 to 7, and as well as celebrating the contribution of so many, it’s also going to be an opportunity to sign up new recruits. To this end the Jewish Volunteering Network, run by my old friend Nicky Goldman, will be holding a roadshow at different locations around London, promoting the many opportunities that JVN can match you up with, with Jewish and non-Jewish charities.

Discussing this with Nicky recently, I expressed surprise that recruitment was a problem. After all, the pandemic made us all appreciate the need to look out for our neighbours, and appreciate those who look out for us. The response to the Ukrainian refugees coming to this country was magnificent, especially among the Jewish community. What finer example of volunteering than opening your home to people fleeing danger? It’s an act that resonates with so many Jewish families, who only have to look back a generation to emphasise with those fleeing peril.

But, Nicky explained, the cost- of-living crisis has meant that many people are working longer hours, and have less time to give. And when there are high-profile causes to support, such as Ukraine, then the smaller, less well-publicised ones can suffer.

It’s a shame, because there are so many good reasons to volunteer — and that’s just thinking about the effect on the volunteer themselves. Volunteering can provide meaning to lives rendered empty by loss or redundancy, it can give you a social life or work experience.

Helping others can put your own troubles into perspective, and give your self-esteem a boost.

A recent survey found that volunteers are more likely to feel optimistic about the future, and feel closer to others. It offers a framework to change things that you feel are lacking from your everyday life.

When my mother-in-law was widowed, she suffered from depression and had a nervous breakdown. She rebuilt her life largely through volunteering for the League of Jewish Women, and continued into her 80s.At a day centre for the elderly she made tea for people who were often decades younger than she was. At Strangeways Prison she served refreshments to the prisoners’ wives, relishing the opportunity to see a slice of life that was completely different to her own.

I wasn’t a huge fan of David Cameron, but the National Citizen Service award that he set up was a great thing for both of my children when they were teenagers. They learned the basics of helping others — listening to what’s needed, designing their own projects, putting in the effort and the hours, seeing tangible results. I watched as they grew in confidence, a welcome escape from the emphasis on exams and more exams that was their school life. So many young adults had to put their lives on hold during the pandemic, and that has left some with mental health problems, and needing help in many areas— friendships, work experience, social confidence. Volunteering can help fill those gaps, and Nicky tells me that JVN is setting up a scheme specifically for young adult volunteers, to start them on what will hopefully be a lifetime of helping out.

Why does my daughter volunteer? She pointed me to the website of the shelter where she helps out. There you can read the stories of people who find help there, stories that underline the truth that homelessness could happen to any of us if we’re unlucky enough. “I’d like to think that if I were in that situation, someone would help me,” she said. There’s no better reason.

May 24, 2023 14:21

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