It’s National Volunteers’ Week and while I wasn’t going to say anything about it as to be honest, I’m completely exhausted from my much loved day job, I’m watching a show called ‘The Secret History of Our Streets’ and so I decided to.
The connection between the show and my volunteering is Arnold Circus. It’s an area of Shoreditch and it’s a place where I once went on a guided tour. The tour was run by Unseen Tours and it ran around the Brick Lane area. Liz, my tour guide, was a homeless drug addict and she ran the tours through Unseen Tours to earn enough to pay for food and her hostel.
After going on the tour, and following welled eyes over coffee afterwards, I decided to offer my services as a media representative for them after seeing an appeal on their twitter feed.
I spent a year working with the tours, and it had its ups and downs, but overall I met some great people and I’m proud to have played my part in supporting some amazing people who had fallen on the hardest of times.
After I finished my year with Unseen Tours, I decided to apply to volunteer with the Ministry of Stories. For those who haven’t heard of this charity, they work from their modest Monster Shop in East London and they provide writing workshops to children who otherwise may not have the opportunity to explore their creative side.
But to talk about the Ministry and why it means so much to me, I must first talk about Nepal.
I first visited Nepal in 2001, and I visited a range of charities accompanied by my parents, sister and around 45 other people and a TV crew from ITV. We made a football documentary and had a great adventure.
That trip opened my eyes to a world where the news stopped being on TV, and started to be in my mind.
My parents worked tirelessly to make that trip happen, and it’s molded pretty much everything about me since – so if I ever work with you on a good cause, and I do your head in, then you’ve got them to thank.
In 2006 I decided to go back and work with one of the charities that I met in 2001, the Esther Benjamin’s Trust. I went with five friends from University with the aid of the Philip Russell Travel Scholarship and while we didn’t receive the main pocket of support on offer, we were given several thousands of pounds because our project was so ambitious, well researched and of such benefit.
We spent our time in Nepal working with children who had been trafficked and rescued, and while it was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done, the tragedy of it all was too much. I struggled to cope after having seen the sheer cruelty of the world and for a while that mask of darkness cut out all sunlight.
It put me off working directly with people, and so when I graduated I chose to work for charities and public sector organisations as a media relations professional.
Then one night in 2014, I thought that I was being selfish if I kept avoiding reality and so I googled looking for volunteering opportunities.
I found the Ministry of Stories and it all made sense. I write, I work with children in care, and I just knew I had to apply.
Luckily they accepted my application and I was soon in there being inducted. The induction process was comprehensive, and their belief in serving the needs of the child shone through. I knew it would become important to me.
The night before my first shift as a writing mentor I couldn’t sleep. Tears once again welled in my eyes as I tried to make myself believe that the children would benefit from me being there.
I walked in to the Ministry and I was greeted by other mentors and staff and I immediately felt at it. It’s such a warm environment and it’s packed full of people who have such a passion for education and developing children, you can’t help but feel like you’re somewhere worth being.
I have now mentored every week but three since January, and I helped to run a week long poetry workshop in Easter half-term. The sense of well being that I felt helping to give children a passion for poetry took me back to sitting in a room full of children in Nepal who had a similar lust for learning.
The Ministry has given me a lot, confidence, the ability to believe that as a person I can be as valuable as the skills I use on a wider scale in my day job, and so much more. I do hope I’ve given the Ministry something back in return.
The children I work with are a sheer delight, and they make me laugh. They’re bright, dedicated, and the Ministry helps them understand what wonderful and valued people that they are.
One of the children made me a name badge to wear and told me that I had to keep it, so it’s here…in my Oyster Card holder. A daily reminder that however small, my volunteering has made difference enough to someone that they in turn wanted to do something nice for me.
Volunteering takes time, and not many have that luxury, but if you do then it gives back so much more than you can ever realise.
I’m from good stock though. My aforementioned parents gave up every weekend for many years running football teams and helping young people who may not have had anything else to do, or occasionally anyone to care about them, to have a life.
You can’t teach that kind of thing, you can only ever lead by example.
So be the difference.
From Nepal to Nepal again, and onto Arnold Circus, and then to Hoxton Street, (plus other bits and bobs) that’s the story of my volunteering.
P.S. A special note to another hero of mine, Philip Holmes, who has devoted his life to serving others and is currently chief executive of the charity Freedom Matters.