Volunteering is an enriching, rewarding experience - surely no one can deny that - and it is hugely affirming to read the stories being shared this Volunteers' Week about the myriad ways that people give up time to causes they care about.
Last year I wrote in this blog that there is a clear business case for ensuring employees have volunteering opportunities - and the points still stand. This Volunteers' Week, though, I am covering it from a more personal perspective; to show the huge impact simple individual actions can have.
Becoming a one-to-one mentor through the youth homelessness charity Centrepoint last year has to be one of the most fulfilling volunteering experiences I have had. I was paired with a young guy called Tom due to a mutual interest in art. Tom had been a promising design student before things spiraled out of control - he ended up living in hostel accommodation with Centrepoint and had been there for two years by the time we met. I was conscious never to ask about his personal life - it wasn't my job to be fascinated by his extraordinary situation, but by his extraordinary potential - but occasionally he would cast out a snippet and the life I pieced together was complicated, and the person I got to know was incredible in the face of this.
I saw my role as being a listener, without judging - a professional friend - and helping Tom to see his own potential. He told me he wanted to make a career of art, but thought it wasn't possible. Of course it's possible, I said, and we looked at some options. And soon Tom started to see every dream as an ambition and in the course of a year, Tom moved into his own flat, got a part time job and started a full time university degree course in design.
Of course, I was just part of the large network of support available through Centrepoint and Tom was great at accessing the right advice and assistance, from dietary guidance to help with house hunting. As Tom said, he was the seed, full of possibilities, and Centrepoint watered him.
Tom was a smart young guy; cautious but intelligent. I often called him the little philosopher as he had a tendency, as I've just shown, to summarise something we discussed as if a pithy motto. In short, I thoroughly enjoyed his company.
I would often speak to my volunteer coordinator though and say 'am I missing something?', 'should I be doing more?' but I was always told that I was doing exactly what was needed and that Tom was finding the meetings and conversations helpful. It was a good reminder of the power of conversation.
I sometimes felt like Tom was volunteering his time to assist me though and slowly helping me to become more patient, a better listener, more socially aware. He was also educating me in a whole new world - trainer designs, street artists, and even the perfect coffee.
We would meet every two or three weeks for a few hours. (I'm luckily in working for a progressive company, Forster Communications, that recognises the value of employee volunteering, but meeting in the evening or weekends wasn't a problem too). Often our meetings would involve simply grabbing said perfect coffee and walking around, sometimes we might go to a park or even a gallery. We would often agree some small goals for him to be done by our next meeting.
There were many meetings that passed uneventfully, but always happily, and then there were some moments that I will never forget. I took Tom to the theatre for his first ever visit, and chose a modern interpretation of a Greek Tragedy. I feared I might have distanced myself with my leftfield choice. But afterwards, he beamed with enthusiasm, imagining new ideas for his sketches.
I also took Tom to the Tate Modern. It was his first visit there too. It was often hard to gauge what he was thinking as he maintained a calm, considered look at all times, beneath his deep sitting baseball cap. I showed him a painting that first inspired me as a boy, Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Dali. I talked through how my parents had taken me to see it and how it had awoken my interest in the incredible, creative ways you can see the world. Tom simply nodded and we moved on.
The next week though, I learnt he had taken his classmates back to the Tate and persuaded them all to do a project specifically on that painting. It gives me shivers considering this.
Centrepoint mentors are paired for a fixed one-year term - that way it's fair for everyone. After our year together, Tom and I shook hands and said goodbye casually. It would've felt like a sad farewell if I didn't know what a bright future he has ahead of him thanks to Centrepoint.
There are thousands of charities and community programmes that need the help of volunteers to operate, and so thousands of ways you can get involved. Lend a hand, learn a skill, change a life. Visit volunteersweek.org