VOLUNTEERS: Cool Commitment

Young people can be put off by the idea of volunteering as something for the twin-set and pearls brigade, but there's a lot kids and charities can do for each other.

If you believe the tabloids, you're more likely to find tracksuit-sporting tearaways smashing their way into your car than delivering meals on wheels or helping out on a local environmental regeneration project.

But voluntary organisations are finding that young people are keen to get involved in their communities.

Volunteering can be a fun and rewarding experience, giving young people a chance to socialise, acquire some brownie points with future employers and give something back to their community. Youngsters are also energetic and enthusiastic.

Abigail Barfoot is 20 and started out volunteering through Millennium Volunteers with the Cornwall Blind Association.

She has now set up her own project sending school books and equipment to Ghana, after volunteering there with Operation Raleigh.

She says: "Helping out in a school one day, I got to see how little the children had. They had no equipment and any books they had were very out of date. It inspired me to try and do something.

She has collected the first installment of books and equipment and is fundraising for the transportation costs.

In order to attract more young volunteers, some organisations are challenging the traditional image of volunteering.

Millennium Volunteers was set up in 1999 by the Government to encourage young people to volunteer. It aims to reach young people who may not have thought of volunteering before. It has run advertising campaigns promoting volunteering and has so far recruited 50,000 people.

Giles Aspinall, a Millennium Volunteers co-ordinator in Wiltshire, says many of the volunteers he recruits for the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) come from socially-excluded backgrounds. He says volunteering for a conservation project gives young people who may have difficulty fitting into the community the chance to do something constructive.

"It's an easy step between doing nothing and going back to work. If they have had a tough time and they come out for the day and someone acknowledges what they've done and says 'thanks' they really thrive on it,

he says.

Groundwork, an environmental regeneration charity with branches across the country and hundreds of young volunteers working in their communities, does not use the term "volunteering". It feels that young people are put off by the word. The charity chooses to market volunteering to young people through promoting the activities themselves, rather than the idea of giving time.

Groundwork's national programmes manager Yvonne Gilligan says: "Some organisations have the specific aim of encouraging people to volunteer. Our ethos isn't about volunteering, it's about community. We're about things that may have an effect on the volunteers' lives.

Activities young people get involved with may include turning around a run-down park, or creating an area for young people to hang out in.

The Institute of Volunteering Research has been involved in assessing the effect of Millennium Volunteers. Justin Davis Smith, director of the centre, agrees that many young people are turned off by the word "volunteer".

"Often they didn't see what they were doing as volunteering,

he says.

"They see volunteering as meals on wheels or working in a charity shop. They think of what they do as activism or participation."

Some more surprising organisations are reporting success in recruiting young volunteers. Volunteers with the Women's Royal Voluntary Service (WRVS) help out in hospitals, run shops and orientation services, provide meals on wheels and also food for emergency services during crises such as the Hatfield rail crash. But the organisation tends to be associated with the twin-set and pearls brigade.

Judith Taylor, senior volunteering manager, says: "Of 100,504 volunteers, 1,253 are under 24, but the numbers are rising. Volunteering is becoming cooler. To volunteer maybe five years ago wasn't cool at all, but people are starting to see the benefits in terms of fun and their CVs."

She adds: "Young people today have a greater sense of giving back to the community than when I was young."

One of the secrets to recruiting and retaining young volunteers is to allow young people to do what they enjoy and feel comfortable with. Therefore some organisations now offer a range of activities to attract the younger generation.

For example, St John Ambulance, which is currently celebrating the 80th year of the cadet movement, has begun to offer its volunteers a selection of activities. John Newman, senior membership, training and development manager, says: "There are opportunities for adventure activities, campaigning or gaining skills in first-aid and community care. Volunteers can choose what they want to do."

Its young volunteers are still required to wear uniform on certain duties, something that Newman admits may deter some youngsters initially. But he adds that this is soon overcome. "When volunteers are operational they respond well to being in uniform, they feel professional,

he says.

But the organisation has had to adapt.

It has adjusted its uniform policy to fit in with volunteers and it is now only worn at meetings with an operational function.

Being flexible is essential when working with young volunteers who often have many demands on their time such as school or college, friends and family. Demands for a commitment of several hours a week for the next two years may be off-putting. "You need to accommodate their schedules. For example, they may only want to come once a week during a holiday,

Taylor says.

One-day opportunities can be a good way of giving young people a taster of what it's like to be a volunteer. Community Service Volunteers (CSV) runs Make a Difference Day (MADD) every year, encouraging people to get involved in a voluntary activity.

Last year, for the first time, the Community Fund donated money for the organisation to set up one-off projects and promote volunteering to young people. CSV organised special challenges for youths, varying from befriending people to environmental work. More than 6,000 volunteers on the day were under 25. Most of the young participants had never volunteered before and 97 per cent said they would like to carry on volunteering in their community.

About 170 young volunteers gave the town of Harlow in Essex a makeover.

As part of the event, volunteers pushed wheelchair users around the town centre, painted grafitti art in underpasses, erected bird tables and planted trees. The scheme was such a success that MADD will have a strong youth focus again this year. According to the CSV, the day worked so well partly because it asked young people what they wanted to do.

To keep initial enthusiasm going, young people need to have some kind of involvement with the running of the project. Davis Smith at the Institute of Volunteering Research says that when evaluating Millennium Volunteers projects, he found the most successful ones were where young people were given ownership. "They looked at the community and devised their own schemes. Youth ownership is one of the key ideas,

he says.

One project that has put this into action is Kids in Caerphilly are Krazy (Kick), a youth centre in Wales, which recently set up a skate park with the assistance of young volunteers. Dave Brunton, centre co-ordinator of Kick and the Senghenydd Youth Drop-in Centre, says that the young people who come to the project instigated the idea of the park but didn't know where to go to get land and materials, for example. He says: "The youngsters are into skating - it was their idea. I just helped them put it into action."

The relationship between young volunteers and employed staff is vital.

Young people need to feel they are really listened too and not patronised.

Gilligan says: "The dynamic between the two is very important, there needs to be a relaxed atmosphere, not a feeling that young people must do as they are told."

Many young volunteers enjoy the social element of volunteering. "Volunteering is a good way for me to meet people,

says Barfoot. "I am partially sighted and have found it a good opportunity to meet people in a fairly safe environment."

If a recruit enjoys the time they give to an organisation they will tell friends about it, who may volunteer too. Barfoot has managed to recruit friends and staff from her college to help her with her project to send books to schools in Ghana.

Although a lot of recruiting takes place by word of mouth, some organisations may send staff out to schools or other projects working with young people.

As well as being sociable and fun, volunteering can also be a useful addition to a CV, showing a candidate has a real interest in working in a certain area. It's also an ideal way to demonstrate leadership or team working skills. WRVS' Taylor says: "Schools and colleges and employers are starting to look for well-rounded people rather than just academic achievements."

Accreditation schemes can encourage volunteers, particularly those looking for something to put on their CV. Millennium Volunteers' participants receive an MV certificate after 100 or 200 hours of volunteering.

But although an MV may look good on a CV, most organisations find that it is not the main motivation for their volunteers. "Accreditation and building up a good CV is an incentive but volunteers usually come to us because they think they will enjoy it and they want to contribute to the community," says Newman.

CASE STUDY: MILLENNIUM VOLUNTEERS IN THE WEST COUNTRY

By Kate Sandall, co-ordinator at a Millennium Volunteers project for BTCV in Exeter

The image of volunteering does deter young people but it's becoming more popular. Our volunteers do a variety of tasks, from physical work to fundraising and publicity. They gain experience, make friends and get to go out and about. It also enables them to do something that's different from their everyday life.

The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers recently worked with a group of students at the West of England School and College for Young People with Little or No Sight in Exeter to build a sensory garden.

Some of the young people who volunteer approach us themselves looking for work experience. Some do a day a week or a day a month. You have to be flexible and fit in with their lives. I also go out to schools, colleges and other projects with young volunteers to put out flyers. I try to get potential new volunteers along to a one-day task to see if they enjoy it.

HOW YOUNG PEOPLE BENEFIT FROM VOLUNTEERING

Anwen Ashworth, 16, WRVS

A representative from Millennium Volunteers came to visit our school to try to encourage some of the pupils to volunteer. Personally, I don't think there's a problem with the image of volunteering among young people. Out of 170 people in my year, around 20 people volunteer.

For WRVS, I volunteer on alternate Sundays with a friend. I take a trolley with food and magazines round Cheltenham General Hospital.

I also read with children in a local primary school, run a creche in the local church and help out in the school library.

Volunteering is a good way of getting work experience: it looks good on your CV and personal statement for university applications. All the areas I've volunteered in I've wanted to work in. I did want to be a teacher and was also interested in becoming a doctor so helped out in a primary school and in hospital. I'd like to work in drama now so I'll be helping out as a stage hand for the lower school.

It's also very sociable. At the hospital, I work with a friend and in the primary school I get to meet lots of children and other volunteers. The school also gives us time out to volunteer and help with reading in the local primary schools.

It's not entirely self interested though. I also enjoy helping people out. It's very rewarding, making someone happy.

Katherine Parker, 17, WRVS

I heard about WRVS through Anwen. It seemed like a friendly organisation and there were quite a lot of young people volunteering.

Volunteering helps widen your perspectives and meet people from the community. I had a great experience once when I walked into a maternity ward and there was a couple there from my church who had just had a new baby. They were really pleased to see me there volunteering.

Anna Harrison, 17, St John Ambulance

As a volunteer I do all sorts of activities including first-aid duty at football matches and other local community events and fundraisers such as flag day. I'm also going to represent St John Ambulance at the Queen's Jubilee. I got involved because a couple of my friends were volunteers and it seemed like a fun thing to do.

Last year, I was cadet of the year which was absolutely brilliant. The role meant getting involved with loads of one-off events. For example, I carried a flag for the organisation on St John's day at St Paul's. I've made lots of friends across the country and the world through being a volunteer.

The main reason I volunteer is because I enjoy it but I think employers are impressed by it too. Having been a St John Ambulance volunteer means you know about team work and leadership.

Trevor Phillips, 19, Kick

I have been volunteering for about four years now. I started out coming into the centre and one year later started volunteering. I've changed quite a lot. I used to be naughty at school, but volunteering has calmed me down.

I supervise rooms in the centre, teach youngsters to use computers and advise them about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. I also won a new volunteer of the year award from Caerphilly Borough Council last year.

Volunteering has inspired me to become a youth worker and the centre is like a second home. I enjoy making new friends. I love mucking about with teenagers and this is the only place you get to do it.

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