I feel very reluctant to suggest that any good can come from a recession that has seen so many people plunged into financial hardship but, I do think that for a lot of us it’s forced a re-evaluation of our values and a reassessment of what’s actually important in life. I am the first person to admit that I am, by nature, a self obsessed spendthrift but there is something obscene about buying another pair of shoes I don’t need when there are others who can’t afford to put food on the table.
It seems to me that, as a society, we have been blind to the consequences of our behaviour for a long time. Youth employment has soared and the last couple of years have seen a push by the government to encourage young people to become better citizens by taking up voluntary work. The truth is, as we all know, they just want to dodge the fact that there are no jobs for young people. As a society we have surely failed our young like never before. The Prince’s Trust recently published figures that state 750,000 people between the ages of 16 to 25 feel they have nothing to live for and is it any wonder when they are stuck at home isolated with no money or independence.
That being said, I do believe that voluntary work is a good idea and not just for our young people. Maybe I’m viewing the past through rose coloured glasses but I seem to remember voluntary work being much more common place in the 1970s and early 80s. When I was at school, we were made to choose a charity to write a project about, part of which involved working with the said charity for an afternoon a week. I spent many a tortured Thursday afternoon with The Little Sisters of the Poor, who cared for elderly people in my community. I hated it but, not convinced by my charitable efforts, my mum made me help out the sisters on Saturdays once the school project came to an end. I remember quaking with terror at the prospect of getting the calling and having to spend the rest of my days as a nun.
Fortunately I never got the calling but it did introduce me to the concept of volunteering my time to help others. Whilst doing A Levels it was sort of expected that everybody did some sort of voluntary work, if only to pad out the personal statement section of our university applications. I had a very pleasant experience serving cups of tea to pensioners in a community centre which led me to carry on volunteering whilst at university. Then I started work and time became too precious a commodity to be able to spare any for helping others. I lost sight of the fact that I derived just as much pleasure from volunteering as any of the people I might be purporting to help.
I spent the next twenty odd years promising myself I would rediscover my community spirit but somehow I never got around to it. Just before Christmas, however, I decided to lend my services to a food bank scheme run by the local church. I didn’t want to be on the front line and so I was based in a small warehouse that the church had rented. My job was to sort through the donations and place them into some sort of food group order and, I have to say, I enjoyed it far more than I’ve ever enjoyed my real job. The best part was the revelation of how generous people are. I’d imagined that the donated food would be basic at best but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Both the amounts and the wide range of products buoyed my faith in human nature.
I was also working alongside people who were committed volunteers, some of whom devoted their time on a more or less full time basis. I suppose the stereotypical idea of voluntary workers is the kind of retired ladies who are stalwarts of The Women’s Institute or who have been the backbone of charity shops for years. However, I found there to be a massive cross section of people. There were some retired people but also some unemployed people looking for constructive ways to spend their time and others who worked, sometimes in demanding jobs, but still found time to devote to helping others. The only thing that all of these volunteers had in common was a positive outlook on life and a trust in the inherent goodness of others. We all know, of course, that bad things happen in the world but, there is something about choosing to focus on the good that is uplifting and life affirming.
It’s a commonly held belief that the moods of those around us effect our own. We are much more likely to be positive if we are surrounded by positive people and vice versa. Lots of jobless young people are the third generation to be blighted by unemployment and it stands to reason that, unless something changes, feelings of hopelessness and alienation will be handed down from one generation to another. Voluntary work could be the spark that enables young disheartened people to feel a sense of hope and community.
As for me, I plan to carry on with the food bank; I’m feeling quite territorial about that warehouse now. I’m not sure that other people are able to create food parcels with the same flair and attention to detail that I adhere to. I have also volunteered my services to the local library which, due to cuts in public spending, is facing closure unless volunteers step forward to keep it open. I’ve read many times how we are supposed to visualise the person we want to be and work towards it. Voluntary work makes me feel good about myself and takes me a step closer to who I want to be.