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Column: How helping others makes you happier AND healthier

Volunteering has increased dramatically in the recession. Anna Lee describes how anybody can be a volunteer – and it might even do you good.

Anna Lee

This week is the first ever National Volunteering Week. Here Anna Lee, chairperson of Volunteer Ireland, describes how volunteering gives people a sense of control in these troubled times – and it might even be good for your health.

WHAT DOES VOLUNTEERING mean to you? Volunteering is a broad term that encapsulates countless ways of offering your help, skills or time to benefit others. From once-off bucket shaking to long-term befriending, anyone can volunteer and there are countless ways in which to do so.

We find that those who register with our Volunteer Centres are often unsure of where to volunteer. Volunteering starts with a desire for making a difference but for a potential volunteer, choosing a charity or organisation to work with can be overwhelming. After all, there are thousands of incredible Irish organisations making a real impact both at home and abroad. But you don’t necessarily have to join an organisation to be a volunteer.

The Irish Government defined volunteering in the 2000 ‘White Paper on a Framework for Supporting Voluntary Activity’ as:

The commitment of time and energy, for the benefit of society, local communities, individuals outside the immediate family, the environment or other causes. Voluntary activities are undertaken of a person’s own free will, without payment (except for reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses).

Potential volunteers may be interested in giving volunteering a go but can often be hesitant of the long term commitment that some volunteer involving organisations require. This week is Ireland’s first National Volunteering Week. The week aims to offer the public routes in to volunteering and highlight that for a day, a few hours or even a few minutes, volunteering can be a great way of connecting with your community and making a difference.

As part of the campaign we encourage members of the public to create their own volunteering projects, to identify a need in their community and encourage others to help bring about change.

We all know that volunteering benefits Irish society, but volunteering also has a powerful effect on the volunteer. We recently carried out a survey with 500 active volunteers, 98 per cent of respondents found that volunteering makes them a happier person.

It doesn’t just make you happier, it can make you healthier too. Research carried out by VolunteerMatch in the US in 2010 found that two out of three volunteers felt physically healthier as a result of volunteering. Eighty-nine per cent of volunteers in this study agreed that volunteering improves their overall sense of well being.

‘Volunteering is a way of taking control’

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that, in light of what has been a very difficult three years, we’ve seen such a dramatic rise in numbers registering to volunteer since the economic downturn. There was a feeling of helplessness in Ireland as the recession took hold. Volunteering is a way of taking control, of making a real positive impact in your community. We may not be able to directly change our economy, but we can always make a positive influence on our society.

In the first year of the recession we saw a 100 per cent increase in volunteer registrations through our network of 22 Volunteer Centres. Since then, numbers have remained at a similar level. This positive response to the recession was also highlighted in the results of the 2011 World Giving Index, which charted Ireland as the second most charitable country in the world, surveying levels of volunteering, charitable donations and how likely participants were to help a stranger in need.

There has never been a better time to help out and contribute to your community. In our recent survey, 76 per cent of participants said that volunteering was either ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ for the future of their community. In recent years we’ve seen some wonderful volunteer led initiatives aimed at making Ireland a better place to live in.

The ‘NAMA to Nature’ group offers a great example of active citizenship. The group of volunteers documented the planting of 1,000 trees in a ghost estate in Leitrim and encouraged others to carry out similar initiatives in other parts of the country. They had created a template and rather than seeking further members, were inspiring others to start their own ‘Nama to Nature’ groups.

‘A movement often starts with one person and one idea’

Dublin Greeters is a positive initiative led by volunteers aiming to improve tourist experiences of visiting our capital. Volunteers are encouraged to lead a group of visitors on a unique tour of Dublin. Each Dublin Greeter is encouraged to chose an area of their own personal interest – it could be a literary tour of landmarks associated with our great writers, an architectural tour of the docklands or a coffee-tasting tour of Dublin’s best cafes. The organisation, founded and run by volunteers, aims to inspire Dubliners to volunteer and design a unique experience of their city.

Another great example of a volunteer led community initiative was started by Breffni O’Kelly in 2007. Friends of the Grand Canal was formed to encourage residents living along Dublin’s Grand Canal and businesses located nearby to participate in monthly clean-up events. Five years later the group is still going strong, attracting a dedicated volunteer base passionate about keeping the waterway clear of rubbish.

For our first National Volunteering Week, Friends of the Grand Canal inspired us to create our flagship project for 2012 – a National Inland Waterways Clean up. Seventeen Waterways Clean Ups will take place across Ireland this week with hundreds of volunteers helping to clean canals, rivers and boating lakes.

One of the incredible things about volunteering is that one volunteer can inspire hundreds to join in making a change. A movement often starts with one person and one idea. Perhaps there’s a problem in your area or community that you could help tackle? This week thousands of volunteers will participate in over 150 volunteering projects across Ireland. For those interested in taking part, it’s not too late to get involved – you can browse a list of opportunities or create and register your own volunteering project at volunteer.ie.

Anna Lee is Chairperson of Volunteer Ireland, the national volunteer development agency. For more information on National Volunteering Week and to see how you can get involved, visit www.volunteer.ie.

Read: Nama to Nature – why we’re planting trees on ghost estates>

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Anna Lee

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