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The value of volunteering in the aftermath of coronavirus

Felicitie Walls, Volunteering Manager at WCVA, explores how changes to volunteering could enable young people to counteract the negative effects of lockdown restrictions on their lives, in the short and medium term. 

*A read for young people looking for opportunities to grow, and for those that seek to ensure the volunteering opportunities they offer meet the needs and aspirations of those that take them.*

Young people of 2020 seem to have been dealt a raw deal by anyone’s standards thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and associated restrictions that have been imposed.

Young people (between the ages of 15 and 21 predominantly) have had rapid changes imposed on their access to face-to-face learning, the approach to examinations and the availability of opportunities for experiential learning, such as volunteering, work placements and internships.

On top of this, young people (alongside people of all ages), have been required to endure living arrangements that may be less than ideal, an inability to physically connect with others and a reduction in access to outside space.

Early indicators suggest that young people are experiencing (to no surprise) an increase in mental health challenges, which have been cited to be related in some degree to all, or some of the above.

Through my role as the Volunteering Manager at WCVA, and particularly due to the work I lead in Wales on the #iwill campaign, I have had the privilege of reflecting on the lived experience of several young people who have been, or still are, active contributors to the communities of Wales (and in some cases, beyond).

In addition, through the youth volunteering networks I facilitate, organisations that involve young people have shared how they have adapted to the crisis to ensure their passionate young contributors can still give their time in a meaningful way.

The experience of young volunteers

Young volunteers have shared that volunteering during the period of lockdown has provided them with the opportunity to remain connected, to use their time (of which they generally had a little more of) in a way they feel is useful and valued, and in some cases to push themselves, to be more creative, brave and innovative.

A scenario which enabled them to create, invent and try out new solutions to the problems that they identified for their peers and the world around them.

An example of this is Project Hope, a project born out of a desire to reduce the loneliness and isolation of young people. The project created regular virtual sessions for young people to connect with others, through online activities and discussions on things young people enjoy and care about.

Naomi, the 21-year-old founder of the project saw a need and had the confidence to create a solution. One that has seen young people across Wales take on leadership roles in the delivery of virtual sessions.

A change in volunteering trends

Two of the key changes that volunteerism has seen since coronavirus took hold are the rapid increase in virtual volunteering opportunities, and the rally of individuals (of all ages) to start and join local initiatives to respond to community need.

Project Hope is an example of both of these in that the project exists online, and that it was initiated, created and run by young people, without a formal volunteering role description or a training package in sight.

These changes to the volunteering landscape are likely to be here to stay, offering a range of benefits for those that volunteer, those that are on the receiving end of volunteers’ contributions and for our society more generally.

The rise of the virtual volunteer

Being able to contribute to a cause you care about from your own home, at a time selected by you (day or night), any where in the world provides volunteers with the ultimate flexibility in volunteering.

Now, before young people get too excited about taking up volunteering through a digital device, there’s work to be done at the supply end of virtual volunteering.

Each week, the www.volunteering-wales.net platform sees an increase in such opportunities available, however more organisations will need to think about how they engage volunteers in this way, revisioning the pathway into these roles, the types of roles that are available, and the support that is offered to their online volunteers.

One of the additional benefits of creating online volunteer roles is that it opens the recruitment pool, as location and the ability to get to a fixed place of volunteering is no longer a restricting factor.

This may open more opportunities to people with disabilities that may have struggled to get to a physical place of volunteering, or who require particular equipment that they already have at home.

For Wales, a challenge is travelling in and around rural communities, being able to engage online, means this is no longer an issue.

Just do it

We already knew that Wales was built on community spirit and that almost one in three people in the nation volunteer, however the numbers of people that have stepped up to support their communities through informal approaches has been astonishing.

All sectors and broader society can benefit from self-organising initiatives. Organisations, the public sector, and businesses are now encouraged to find a way to provide support and guidance that is easily accessible and does not stifle the creativity, bravery, or motivation of these agents for change.

Where young people are concerned, we hope that all those around them, will continue to have faith in the power of youth to change the lives of others and that the enabling factors will continue to be made available (and known) to young people and those that engage with them, so that their potential can flourish.

One of the opportunities that exists for young people in Wales is the nationwide youth led grant panels, set up in each authority area, enabling young people access to funds for their own youth led social action. Young people that need small amounts of funding to kickstart their own ideas can contact their local County Voluntary Council for more information.

Filling the gap

For those young people that feel that the opportunities to learn, engage, experiment, and gain experience in the real world have been taken from their reach, volunteering has the potential to fill that gap.

From a brief analysis of the volunteering opportunities available on the Volunteering Wales platform, there are roles available in which individuals can take on positions which require engagement with communities or can learn how to operate within an office environment.

Many of the roles offer training and will provide references for those that volunteer for them, both offering enhancement to CVs or university applications.

Alongside this, organisations could easily be persuaded (where they have not done so already) to create meaningful opportunities to support their cause, that enable young people to experience the world of work.

Individuals could take on short term, structured projects in which they can learn valuable skills, speak to existing staff and trustees to understand a range of career paths, engage with new people and communities to build mutually beneficial networks, and provide leadership opportunities and pathways to enable people to be more aware of and stretch their capabilities.

Volunteer involving organisations are likely to find that some of their regular volunteers, or typical cohorts of volunteers, may not return to volunteering and they will be forced to consider who and how they attract to provide their services.

Young people may be willing to step into this space, if the ask is right, the offer is seen as beneficial, and the longer-term benefit of choosing that specific opportunity, is understood.

Another way that all sectors could support young people is by encouraging and enabling their workforces to provide time to initiatives that help young people to flourish.

Some great examples of this, include the One Million Mentoring project which pairs professionals with young people aged 16 – 25, and schools that recruit external staff to volunteer their time to deliver mock interviews and CV advice sessions.

Beyond tomorrow

All of the above are opportunities that can be explored tomorrow, steps that can be taken relatively quickly and easily to enable young people to explore and build themselves for their future. A future I am eager to see not devasted by coronavirus or lockdown restrictions.

Beyond tomorrow, the challenges and opportunities we face in a rapidly changing world will require a broader view of volunteerism, across the spectrum of ages and stages, and in consideration of the wider social, economic and technology changes that are coming our way.

What now?

For now, I hope that young people will find a ray of hope in this blog and will seek volunteering as a means of engaging with the world and of gaining some experience, whether they choose to get involved in an existing project, or create their own.

For organisations and businesses, my hope is that they will use this to reflect on how they best support young people through all the means available to them, to enhance their lives and to enable them to flourish.

For more information on volunteering, or working with volunteers, visit our volunteering section.

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