When you hear the word ‘volunteer’, what do you picture?
A do-gooder in a jumper knitted from recycled lentils? A ‘lady what lunches’ in twin-set and pearls? Retired or unemployed people running charity shops and serving Christmas dinner to homeless folk?
Well, yeah, people keen to contribute to their community, or who have time and privilege to spare, or want to gain experience while they look for paid work, or choose to keep busy now they’re retired, are among those who volunteer. And charity shops and helping feed the hungry are great causes.
But volunteering and volunteers are more widespread and diverse too. Over 40 per cent of UK adults formally volunteer at least once a month. Many more give their time in ways they don’t even recognise as volunteering, helping out with events at their children’s school, driving older neighbours to the shops or tidying up their gardens.
At Support After Rape & Sexual Violence Leeds (SARSVL), a charity I helped establish in 2009, volunteers: run the specialist telephone, email, text and face-to-face helpline; provide counselling and advocacy; train fellow volunteers and professionals; publicise our services and fundraise to keep them going; raise awareness and understanding of sexual violence in the wider community; govern the charity and plan for its future. They’re women of diverse ages and backgrounds who volunteer alongside paid work, caring responsibilities, studies, and even volunteering elsewhere.
And despite now also employing a team of brilliant paid staff, SARSVL will always have volunteers at its heart. Sure, as a Rape Crisis Centre - institutions that are traditionally under-resourced - it helps that volunteers are great value for money, but they’re not free. Our volunteers are specially trained, properly insured, provided supervision, travel and childcare expenses, refreshments.
So why volunteers? Because they bring commitment, flexibility and enthusiasm. Because volunteering complements our feminist ethos, our activist roots and our values, like inclusion, diversity, empowerment. Because they help us reflect the communities we serve.
In short, volunteers are invaluable. And personally, I can’t put a price on the meaning, fulfilment, and joy volunteering has brought into my life. So why not?
Find out more about volunteering at SARSVL: supportafterrapeleeds.org.uk/volunteer/
Or visit do-it.org.uk or your local Voluntary Action to discover other volunteering opportunities near you.
Katie Russell is a freelance writer and consultant and volunteer and trustee at Support After Rape & Sexual Violence Leeds.