International Volunteers Day is here and it’s making me think about the way that volunteering can really foster a sense of connection to your community. That feeling of being able to help someone in need is really special. It’s something I experienced first-hand when I started volunteering with the British Red Cross aged 16. As the years went on, I helped to deliver first aid training and emergency response support, as well as spending time pursuing my own dream of training to become a paramedic.
All of that came crashing down when I was 19. We were on the motorway when the car I was travelling in was hit by a drunk driver. At a combined speed of about 190mph we rolled four times and hit the central reservation. I was rushed to hospital with life threatening injuries, having damaged my spinal cord and the nerves in my left leg, leaving me paralysed.
My dreams of becoming a paramedic were shattered and I was left facing an uncertain future. I couldn’t believe how much my life had changed. The accident had a huge effect on me; I didn’t recognise myself and became very isolated and withdrawn. Friends came to visit, but I didn’t want to see them; it only reminded me of all the things I couldn’t do and how different my life had become.
Looking back, if anyone had said to me ‘are you lonely?’ I would have probably said no. I was young and thought loneliness only affected older people, but I’ve since realised that you can be in a room with a hundred people and still feel very lonely. That was my reality. My loneliness felt like a prison and I couldn’t see a way out.
My first steps towards recovery came from the very charity I’d been volunteering with before my accident. These incredible Red Cross volunteers were giving up their free time to help me; get to hospital appointments, do the shopping and prepare my meals. With their support, I felt ready to admit that I was suffering from loneliness.
One morning, a Red Cross volunteer said to me: ‘look, we need you to come out; we need you to help us’. I realised I had been isolating myself and there were other people out there I could help. Taking that first step back into volunteering gave me the courage I needed to go out and face the world again.
It hasn’t been an easy journey; I’ve gone from barely being able to hold a glass of water to learning to walk. Without the network of volunteers who were with me every step of the way, I’m not sure where I’d be now.
For me, volunteering has been a route out of loneliness, enabling me to create new and much needed connections to combat my isolation. Since the accident, I’ve been able to help the Red Cross in responding to the Grenfell Tower fire, volunteering to support the people affected.
Now I look after a group of volunteers for the Red Cross Connecting Communities service, funded by the Co-op. These services work with adults of all ages who are experiencing loneliness or social isolation and aim to reconnect them to their communities. The services were created as a response to research by the Red Cross and Co-op which found that a staggering nine million adults always or often feel lonely, with 93% of 16-24 year old’s reporting that they too sometimes feel lonely. We want to let people know that they’re not alone in feeling alone. The Red Cross did that for me so it’s great that now I can do that for other people.
I love what I do. Every day, my team and I are able to see the true impact of volunteering and I call on anyone who can spare just a few hours a week; it really can make a huge difference to the life of somebody in your community.
I hope that on International Volunteers Day we can all take stock and thank the incredible men and women across the UK who give up their time to help change people’s lives. Every volunteer counts because every single one can make a difference.
For more information on how you can help the British Red Cross tackle loneliness, visit redcross.org.uk/tackleloneliness.