Volunteering is never a one-way street – Ewan Aitken

The Cyrenians could not operate without its 1000 volunteers, who make a huge contribution to the lives of others while benefiting themselves, says Ewan Aitken

Volunteers at the Midlothian Community Hospital Garden, in Bonnyrigg, which is run by the Cyrenians. Picture: Scott Louden
Volunteers at the Midlothian Community Hospital Garden, in Bonnyrigg, which is run by the Cyrenians. Picture: Scott Louden

About once a month I spend an hour reading stories to pupils at my local primary school. It’s a very small contribution to the life of a great wee school; it’s a far bigger contribution to my life. No matter my mood, the length of my “to-do” list, how bad the weather; whatever is going on in my life, I leave the school feeling good. I have no idea if what I do makes any difference, though they do keep having me back; but it feels worthwhile, which is a great gift to receive.

Volunteering is never a one-way street. Those of us able to give time receive a great deal in return. Giving of who we are, our time and talents, freely is how we build the communities which make up our city; and it’s how we build up ourselves as well. The wellbeing those who volunteer feel comes from the opportunity itself, the inner growth it nurtures, as much as the work done for others.

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Which is why the celebration of volunteering last week across Scotland was so important. It was an act of gratitude not just marking the huge contribution of volunteers to the lives of others, but for the benefit received by volunteers and the strengthening of community and sense of common life volunteering nurtures.

Ewan Aitken is CEO Cyrenians Scotland

Last year, Cyrenians had almost 1000 volunteers who gave us over 77,000 hours of support, which is equivalent to around 40 full-time staff; though such a statistic is not a helpful way of describing the true value of the contribution of all those lovely people who gave their time and talents to help Cyrenians challenge the causes and consequences of homelessness. Having so many different volunteers literally from all over the world meant the richness of the contribution over those 77,000 hours was quite extraordinary. Thanks to the madness and injustice of the present visa application system, with its culture of hostility and incompetence, the richness we experience is being seriously undermined – but we will not give up.

Volunteering means many things over those 77,000 hours. For some it’s almost a full-time activity. We offer placements and opportunities for folk a long way from the labour market as they take their first steps back from some very difficult tough realities towards rediscovering their potential to be the citizens we would all like to be. One person in this situation put it to me simply: “This opportunity is saving my life and the lives of my family because now I see hope where once I saw the bottom end of a bottle.” For others it’s a few hours on a corporate team challenge – helping out at our farm or in our gardens – that’s a one-off but equally as valuable; one volunteer said to me it had been their best day at work; they were very proud to work for a company who gave them the time to volunteer. The opportunity to contribute to our work nurtured new loyalty to their day job.

We could not operate without volunteers. The teams who deliver ten tons of food every week which would otherwise be thrown away but instead feeds 20,000 people; the 100 or so volunteers who befriend older people meaning they don’t end up becoming ill through social isolation; our amazing community garden volunteers who create special spaces where people who are struggling find a therapeutic retreat; the men and women who do a myriad of admin tasks across the organisation – along with so many others who do too many things to mention in one article. Every one of them helps change lives.

The extraordinary thing about volunteering is that the benefits are rarely just about the activity itself, important as those are; instead, in giving and receiving, freely and unconditionally, we discover better who we are and who we might be; a precious gift which money can never buy.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians Scotland