26/05/2016 12:56 BST | Updated 27/05/2017 06:12 BST

It's Vital We Find New Ways to Engage Young People So They Don't Miss Out on the Experience of Volunteering

It's a well quoted fact that volunteering has numerous benefits-whether for health, skills development or wellbeing it's an all round great thing to do. Volunteering showcases human beings at their best and we should take the opportunity that volunteers week provides to celebrate and appreciate everyone who gives their time.

I've been lucky enough to be working with an incredible team of young online volunteers at TalkLife and I felt compelled this volunteers week to give you a glimpse of who these inspirational people are and how, by moving away from a traditional model and offering a new innovative way to volunteer we are enabling young people to give back on their terms.

I want to introduce you to Brad. Brad is 21, a Computer Forensics student, works for Apple and is a website designer on the side-his life is busy. He (really) loves coffee and reading. Brad is also a TalkLife volunteer and he is awesome.

Wind back a couple of years and he wasn't feeling quite so awesome. Struggling with mental illness and isolated he'd hit rock bottom. He wanted somewhere to talk to others who were in a similar situation; whilst maintaining anonymity from friends and family and having the convenience of it being a tap away (he is of course rarely parted from his smartphone). He found his way to TalkLife.

TalkLife is a peer support app for young people to give and get support. They can talk openly and honestly about how they are feeling and have difficult conversations in a safe and supportive place with others who have been there. TalkLife breeds empathetic, authentic and wise young alumni who often want to give back to the community that supported them and help others in the same way that they were helped-just like Brad.

"I had the belief that recovery would be impossible, yet I found hope in the community members who could fully empathise with me because of their similar experiences; but who had also recovered from their depression. Because of the masses of support I received from the community, when I finally recovered I wanted to give back".

Our volunteers moderate the platform keeping it safe. They also volunteer as 'buddies' trained in providing empathetic support to others. They are an engaged, buzzing group who also know when they need to step back and take a break. We don't have set shifts or expectations of our volunteers-it works on an as and when basis, from the comfort of their smartphones. We have a lot of laughs, and talk about how we are doing and feeling regularly-we're all in it together. It seems to be working. Applications to become volunteers are increasing rapidly.

Brad's family couldn't believe it when he told them on top of everything else he was going to start volunteering but the flexibility online volunteering provided meant that he was able to make it work.

"They expressed the same concern that I had; time! I'm the type of person that when you text me, I respond days later; so they were wondering where I would find the time to volunteer; but due to the flexibility of online volunteering, it completely worked around my schedule, time and life".

This different way of volunteering seems to have struck a chord -our young people are a time poor and transient community who need to be able to flex the way they volunteer to reflect their lives.

"We all live day-to-day lives; some days are hectic, some relaxed and some in between. Volunteering at TalkLife isn't taking on another job, but rather a 'do what you can' environment. There are weeks where I'm doing a million jobs, travelling and where I simply don't have the time; but the Crew at TalkLife understand that. Volunteering online allows me to give back to a community which has given so much to me on my time, in my house, on my phone".

And what about the impact?

"Without the opportunity to enrich lives, I hand on heart believe I'd continue to struggle with depression. Volunteering gives my free time purpose".

"I had no skills in active listening, little knowledge of mental health and bluntly speaking little interest, until I experienced my own Mental Health crisis. Since then, the skills I've learnt through treatment, volunteering and training have been invaluable in my day-to-day life".

We have to find ways to engage young people so they don't miss out on these benefits.

As a society we are doing a great job of disempowering our youth. We tirelessly categorise young people as hapless financial victims of the housing market and rising university fees or beset by exam pressure and struggling to cope. We criticise them for not having the social values of generations before them or for not involving themselves in traditional forms of citizenship. This is damning stuff and how long is it before this view becomes self reinforcing?

Young people need to feel empowered and to find a place in society that has value-to feel they can effect change around them. Current conventional routes to volunteering are failing and I don't believe this is where the future lies. Young people's lives work in a way that isn't currently being reflected in the recruitment, management and creation of volunteering roles.

We can't train our crew fast enough at TalkLife-the demand is too high-we are getting over a thousand applications to volunteer each month. Perhaps that's what happens when you give people ownership. TalkLife is their place. They've made it and they own it-there's a sense of autonomy and agency. As volunteers they feel like they have the chance to change the world-even if it's just for one person for one moment. There's something pretty powerful about that don't you think?