Volunteering - why bother?

I have been doing voluntary work for a few years now and was recently asked “why do you bother?’’

I first volunteered whilst travelling around India on my own, having taken a sabbatical from my corporate job. Directionless and unsure where to go next I found myself at a loose end in Dharamsala, a hilltop town in the Himalayas. Home to an eclectic mix of Buddhist monks, the Dalai Lama, Hindis, Christians, hikers and many passing through, I volunteered to help out at a local school. Each morning I would ride in a tuk tuk to a remote village, scramble down the side of a Himalayan mountain and attempt to teach a group of five year olds how to read and write. Having only worked in an office with adults, I was comically out of my comfort zone. I felt incredibly awkward at first, but over time I got to know the kids and them, me. Their smiles were so big and eyes so wide when I taught them a new song or brought them a packet of stickers. It was a very humbling experience and one which had a profound impact on me. Here I was, giving my time and energy, not for money, but for satisfaction and the joy of having a positive impact on others.

Back in the UK I vowed to continue voluntary work. Seeking out charities that worked with young people and coaching, two of my passions, I have now been fortunate to work with a few organisations as a volunteer. So why do I bother? On one level I have found it a great way to meet new people, it might improve my CV and I have been lucky to receive some fantastic training.

I also hope that I am contributing to society - I know many of us feel disengaged with government and frustrated by the lack of help for those most vulnerable in the UK. Rather than complaining about this I try to make a difference by volunteering my time and effort to helping within our communities. You might surprise yourself in what you can give to others and what you receive in return. Volunteering with people in less fortunate situations has also made me feel very grateful for the opportunities I have been given.

All the above reasons to help out are great, but the biggest benefit I have found by volunteering and what makes me so passionate about doing it has been the impact on my self esteem. It may sound selfish but I think the primary beneficiary of my voluntary work has been...me. Volunteering has made me feel kinder and more compassionate towards myself. Giving something and not receiving payment in a traditional sense has been so rewarding. At times I have found it frustrating and it has required commitment but I have stuck with it. Not to feel smug about ‘helping others’ but because at the heart of self worth is feeling good about ourselves, having a sense of purpose and having a positive influence on others.

So as another school year ends and I bid farewell to my latest young coachee, I’m not sure how much of an impact my volunteering has had on others, but I pause to recognise the huge impact it has had on me.

Begin Again

Since the start of the year I have been experiencing many new beginnings, and have been helping others start things for the first time too. 

Leaving my beloved Edinburgh behind has been difficult and has forced me to question again which direction I want my life to go in. It has only been two years since I quit my job in finance, packed up my London life and vowed never to live here again. Yet here I am, a new beginning in a familiar place. 

When we stay (metaphorically) in the same place we have our habits and routines - we know what we are doing, it's comfortable. But nothing really grows or changes from there. It takes courage to start something new, and perhaps even more to return to a place or activity that did not work for us the first time round. The comfort zone is called comfortable for a reason; however unhappy or dissatisfied we become with it, it is a known and safe place. "Habits keep you safe, but keep you small" a teacher once told me. 

So how and why do we change these habits and try something new, shake off being small and aim for something bigger? Is it when those niggling discomforts become too loud to ignore any longer...that persistent back ache, that feeling of being stuck, hearing ourselves complaining constantly, those thoughts that keep us awake at night as to whether we are really being the best version of ourselves. 

What we resist, persists. Things may get better for a while, we trundle along, we say ‘I’m fine’ and think ‘things aren't that bad'...but before long we find ourselves back feeling stuck again. 

Choosing to try something new and being a beginner, especially as an adult, can be excruciating. When was the last time you had no idea what you were doing? Felt silly, lost, uncomfortable, shy - out of your comfort zone. Moving this year I have been pushed into beginning again, losing my clients in Edinburgh has been just that - a loss - but also a blessing, as I have had the pleasure of working and engaging with new people ‘beginning’ to be their new selves. Turning up to that first coaching session or yoga class is a real act of courage and I truly respect and admire all the beginners I have worked with for trying something new. 

Getting people onto the mat or into the coaching space for the first time is the hardest part. Once they are there, the practices work. The first session is hard, the second a little easier, the third they are even starting to enjoy it...and by the fourth they are seeing improvements, growth, momentum and realising yes they CAN do it, they can change.

If you're feeling fed up or stuck then I dare you to try something as a beginner. Anything -  take a language class, music lesson, a new exercise class, anything to get out of your comfort zone and grow as a person. Don't allow the excuse of a lack of time or money to stop you from trying, see this as an investment in yourself. 

Find the right teacher through recommendations, look for classes targeting your level, tell people you are doing a new thing to provide accountability, pay upfront for a block to make a commitment or book private classes for more focused attention. If you don't know where to start or what to try, find a coach to remove obstacles and propel you into action. Trying new things is so positive for our mental health - that feeling of learning, progressing and improving, no matter how difficult it is to begin with or how slow the progress. 

So what's really holding you back from starting something new? Beginning again, today, can be the start of the new you. Who knows what it might help you become.