3 Volunteers Share How They Are Supporting Their Communities Through Offline Action

Carmen Verheijen gets to know three volunteers based in London and explores everything from serving community, to self-growth and the benefits volunteering has brought them.

It is safe to say that we’ve collectively made social media a space for greater socio-political awareness. You don’t have to cast your mind back far to remember the role social media has played in the worldwide recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement in June 2020, or the shared outrage we felt at murder of Sarah Everard in March last year. It has been a medium for us to digitally come together and open our eyes to issues we were not familiar with before. Whether it’s sharing infographics, donation links or petitions, social media allows us to take instant action. As great as taking online activism is, it shouldn’t stop us from putting those good intentions into real-life actions. To overcome this disconnect, volunteering can be a way to meaningfully contribute to a cause that you care about while building community. However, it has an image problem – particularly with younger people. Data from Third Sector Protect shows that those least likely to volunteer were 24 to 34-year-olds. 

In London, Lise, Racqui and Emma are proving that supporting your community isn’t just for the elderly. From helping people in food crises, to LGBTQIA+ refugees and asylum seekers, and people with learning disabilities, get to know these three people who have taken their commitment to support others offline.  

Lise at Bow Food Bank

Lise volunteers once a week for a food bank in her neighbourhood that distributes emergency food supplies to those in crisis due to financial difficulties. There are many reasons why people cannot afford to buy food, let alone healthy food. These can range from being on a low income, zero-hours contracts, waiting for a Universal Credit claim to be paid, benefit sanctions, being in debt and living costs being more than the household income. Bow Food Bank serves 1300 households per week over their two locations in Tower Hamlets. The borough has a 39 per cent poverty rate, the highest in London and the highest child poverty rate in the UK. Bow Food Bank works with a network of volunteers to create a non-judgmental, friendly environment where people can overcome the shame and stigma around turning to a food bank for support. 

Lise is a freelance journalist and copywriter from Norway who moved to London four years ago. From her experiences as a journalist, she has always wanted to help her community and have a place where she can talk to people and feel useful. Last summer, she had some extra time on her hands, so she decided to finally give volunteering a try in search of meaningful social contact. “As a freelancer, it can be very lonely. That’s why I love coming here, because of the people that come here as clients, and the other volunteers as well,” she explains. 

Lise shares that she feels privileged that she can give up her time to work for free. Although she now doesn’t think of volunteering as extra work, she used to be afraid of the additional commitment in her already busy life. “You don’t need to be a saint or Mother Teresa just to volunteer – it’s not true that you have to give up your life to help others. You can just give two hours each week and still get all the benefits of volunteering.”

You don’t need to be a saint or Mother Teresa just to volunteer – it’s not true that you have to give up your life to help others. You can just give two hours each week and still get all the benefits of volunteering.

Lise

Lise greets and registers clients and distributes the food packs for a few hours every Wednesday when the food bank operates from a local school. She finds it sometimes challenging that the food bank can only do so much. However, she says, “I can be someone who listens, you know? I’m surprised how open people are. I can stand there and take the time to listen and show respect.” 

Volunteering has helped Lise break stereotypes that she subconsciously upheld in her head. She has met people from different communities that she wouldn’t have come across in her life as a freelancer. The top thing she has learned is to be less judgemental: “When you meet clients, you can put yourself in their shoes and their story, and it makes you realise that the world is not that black and white. It gives me a lot of perspective.” 

Lise enjoys the atmosphere at the foodbank and being able to meet other volunteers as well as clients. Contrary to popular belief, only a small portion of the volunteers are pensioners. Most people are students or freelancers and creatives like herself – and some bankers, she says while smiling. “I’m certainly happier now than I was before I started to volunteer. My husband always says that I’m in such a good mood when I come back from the food bank.” 

Volunteering isn’t only about giving your time and yourself. Talking about my story helps the other person find recognition, and at the same time, helps me heal.

Racqui

Racqui at Say It Loud Club

Say It Loud Club is a support and advocacy organisation focused on LGBTQIA+ refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. Started in 1994 as a campaigning group for LGBTQIA+ rights by Aloysius Ssali, the group was revived in 2010 when Aloysius applied for asylum in the UK and experienced a lack of support. People applying for asylum on the grounds of sexuality or gender face a hostile environment in the UK with nearly thirty percent of asylum claims getting rejected because interviewers did not believe applicants’ sexualities were genuine. But how can asylum seekers prove their sexuality when they have spent their whole life hiding it out of concern for their safety? 

Say It Loud Club offers mentoring aimed at self-acceptance, practical support for newcomers in the UK, social events and (legal) workshops to members from all over the world with one thing in common – they have all left their home country out of fear for their safety, looking for acceptance and freedom in the UK. I met Racqui during one of the club’s monthly legal workshops, this time discussing the proposed Nationality and Borders Bill. “Meetings are open for everyone. We always have newcomers, so it’s a good way of helping them settle in,” she says. 

Racqui arrived in the UK on a work visa and eventually applied for asylum out of fear of returning to her home country of Zimbabwe. She cannot work or study in the UK during her asylum procedure – instead, she spends her time braiding hair with her niece and socialising with friends, many of whom she met at SILC. Volunteering has helped Racqui fill her time: “Just being at home and having not much to do at the moment, this is a way to keep me busy.” 

Say It Loud volunteers

Racqui got in contact with SILC in 2017 when she hadn’t come out herself yet. It took her a while to come out to everyone in her family she says, “In my culture, being LGBTQ+ is looked down upon. It is seen as evil or demonised. I had a talk with Aloysius, that’s when it all fell into place and I started to feel comfortable about everything.”

She is now part of the ambassador program, which trains members to become active contributors to the club as volunteers. Racqui is a social media volunteer, which she enjoys. “Volunteering has helped me find my strengths, and I have gained a lot of social media knowledge and realised my leadership skills,” she says. Social media is not the only area in which Racqui is active. Ambassadors also support new arrivals who often don’t have social networks; they provide practical help and personal contact through check-up calls. 

For Racqui, volunteering with SILC has helped her heal and find community. “Volunteering isn’t only about giving your time and yourself. Talking about my story helps the other person find recognition, and at the same time, helps me heal.” The friends Racqui has met at Say It Loud Club come and support her in court, and she does the same for them. She loves the family she has found in the club who support each other in highs and lows. “It is liberating to be able to help someone else because I’ve been helped,” she says modestly. For Racqui, Say It Loud Club is a new home: “We all carry the same story, but in a different way.” 

Emma at Gig Buddies

Support for learning disabled people often ends after 9 pm when caretakers finish their shifts, making nightlife inaccessible for 1.5 million people with learning disabilities in the UK. Gig Buddies aims to change that by empowering people, building friendships and giving people choice about what they do with their own lives. People with and without learning disabilities are matched based on their interests and once a month, they go out together based on their interests, just like Emma and Toyin. 

Emma is a performance artist, actor and director from Croydon who is passionate about creating accessible environments for learning disabled people, which led them to Gig Buddies last summer. They were matched with Toyin, who loves art and photography. Together, they enjoy going to pubs, visiting exhibitions and seeing theatre performances. I met Emma and Toyin at Boxpark Croydon for a club night run by people with learning disabilities. Emma explains that there’s a narrow image of volunteering, and is still typically associated with church go-ers and retired people, but tonight showed me differently. The club was filled with people of all ages and backgrounds dancing away with their buddies. 

Emma explains, “There are a lot of stereotypes of how learning disabled people don’t like to go out, drink or smoke. Gig Buddies breaks those stereotypes by making evening life accessible to learning disabled people.” For them, being a buddy isn’t only about supporting Toyin: “Being a buddy means I can share my interests and things I enjoy doing with someone else.” 

Spending time with Toyin hasn’t only taught Emma about access needs – they got to know Toyin’s way of seeing and experiencing things. “My buddy and I went to an installation, and she took great interest in a building that was being renovated,” they recall. “She was asking what kind of building it might have been back in the day, and she pointed out details that I never would have noticed myself.” 

She was asking what kind of building it might have been back in the day, and she pointed out details that I never would have noticed myself.

Emma

Through spending time together, Emma has discovered how to frame topics in an accessible way and says they’ve gained an openness to a different way of life.”Toyin and I discussed internalised ableism the other day, and it took me by surprise how passionate and detailed she was about it.” 

If tonight has shown me one thing, it is that for Emma, volunteering is about spending time with a friend they wouldn’t have met in daily life. “If you want to volunteer, don’t be afraid to give it a shot,” they reassure me. “Do it because you genuinely want to, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You might come across some complexities, but [Gig Buddies organisers] Evie and Chez have been very supportive of me.” 

You might be interested in volunteering yourself but don’t know where to start. I would suggest finding organisations that work with causes you feel connected to and sending them an email. It never hurts to show your interest and offer your help. To overcome the feeling of volunteering being a big commitment, find places that are easy for you to reach, as being active in your own neighbourhood is just as meaningful as anywhere else. Finally, we all have skills or knowledge that is specific to us. Use them! If you enjoy the activity you are taking part in, you will be much more likely to make it last. 

If Lise, Racqui and Emma have shown us anything, it is that volunteering has been a way for them to make a positive change in their community. While volunteering is a commitment, they all agree that it has enriched their view of life and made them happier.

<strong>Carmen Verheijen</strong>
Carmen Verheijen

Carmen is a Dutch creative living in London with a background in fashion. They’re Interested in critical journalism with a focus on queer identity, neurodiversity, migration politics, the climate crisis and its intersections. They have volunteered with refugees and asylum seekers on the Greek island of Samos and is currently working for homeless charity Glass Door. 

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