The Benefits of Volunteering

Why working for free broadens one’s horizons

When Jenna Johnson began her first summer volunteering, little did she know that it would lead her to her future career and partner? Jenna, born in the late 1980s, a learning support assistant from Redcar, UK, tells why volunteering is so important to her.

How I discovered my passion

I remember how nervous I felt on my first morning of volunteering. I was only 15 and had signed up to help out on a local council-run playscheme for school children in the summer holidays. Little did I know that it would be the start of something that would shape my whole future, not just career-wise but my personal life, too.

I’ve always liked children and thought I might want to work with them, so the playscheme seemed a perfect opportunity to try it out. It involved organizing games and taking children on trips to the beach and to theme parks. It was so much fun and I loved every minute of it. Because it was over a few weeks, we got to know the kids quite well and it was really rewarding to see them making friends, becoming more confident, and just having a great time. It made a big impression on me, and I formed friendships with some of the other volunteers that have lasted to this day.

My next stint of voluntary work was in 2007 when I was studying psychology at university. I spent time in primary and secondary schools with children who were in need of additional support. It involved helping them with reading, writing, understanding the work, and boosting their self-esteem. This actually led to my first full-time paid job as a learning support assistant in a school.

A need for volunteers

Ironically, it was this first job that led me to a new volunteering opportunity. One of our pupils had behavioral problems but his mum was deaf and there was no one who could communicate with her. There was a clear need for an interpreter so I took a British Sign Language course, reaching level three by 2012. That was when someone suggested that I volunteer with the National Deaf Children’s Society charity, which I still do.

I go on both residential and day events, during which deaf children get the opportunity to try all sorts of activities, from archery and canoeing to dance, drama and music — pursuits they may not otherwise be able to do because of a lack of interpreters at mainstream activity centers. My role is to use sign language to communicate what the activity leaders are saying. These events are important as they help children and young people feel less isolated. They also help build their self-esteem, give them confidence in their identity and help them make friends. At the beginning of the weekends, the kids are often quite nervous and shy but by the end, they’ve made new friends and are having fun. It’s really satisfying to see.

Voluntary work has enhanced my life

I’ve gained plenty of confidence myself too. I’m always meeting new people, from all over the UK. Voluntary work has given me the chance to see the world through others’ eyes; it’s provided me with a sense of purpose and has added meaning to my life. I may not be paid financially, but I get so much out of it in other ways. It makes me feel positive, it gives me something to look forward to, and above all, it makes me feel that I’m contributing rather than just taking. Plus, without it, I wouldn’t have the career I have today. I recently started a job as a learning support assistant in a secondary school, working with deaf children, and I am hoping to become a freelance British Sign Language/English Interpreter one day.

It’s totally shaped my personal life, too. I’ve met many of my friends through volunteering, including my partner Gary. We met many years ago when we were volunteering on a playscheme and we’ve now been together for eight years. Volunteering has completely changed my life — and definitely for the better!”

The proven benefits

Research is increasingly proving that volunteering has a whole host of surprising benefits. Here are some of the most impressive:

  • Better physical health: Adults over 50 who volunteer for 200 hours per year are less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers, according to a 2013 study from Carnegie Mellon University, USA.
  • Giving time makes you feel you have more time: This was the ironic finding from a 2012 study from Harvard, Wharton, and Yale, USA.
  • A longer life: Several studies show that regular volunteering can actually decrease your risk of dying — if you’re over 55. Psychology and Aging journal, 2013
  • Reduced stress: So said 78 percent of regular volunteers who took part in a 2013 US national study of 3,351 adults. UnitedHealth Group, 2013
  • Greater sense of purpose: This is shown most strongly in people who have retired or whose children have grown up. The Journals of Gerontology, Series B, Oxford Journals, 2004
  • More engagement in the community: Volunteering can help you build social capital — strong social connections that can support you in tough times. World Bank Research Observer, 2000
  • Greater employability: Four in five people questioned for a 2014 report for the UK’s Citizens Advice service thought that volunteering had increased their employability. Citizens Advice, UK, 2014

Why work for free?

All around the world people are giving their time to help others. There are an estimated 20 million formal volunteers in the UK, around 62 million in the US, and the entire Chilean fire service operates on a voluntary basis! So what motivates people to work for free? According to research, the most common reasons include the desire to:

  • Give something back to an organization that has had a positive impact on a person’s life
  • Make a difference in others’ lives
  • Help the environment
  • Help others who are less fortunate
  • Feel valued and part of a team
  • Spend quality time away from work
  • Gain confidence and self-esteem
  • Learn new skills
  • Enhance career opportunities
  • Meet new people
  • Become more involved in the community



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