By Jenny Schaeffer, MA in Sociology (Youth, Community, and Social Regeneration)
Typically I avoid waking up early on Sunday mornings, but on this particular morning I did not mind rising with the birds. After dressing quickly for the chilly weather, I made my way over to the indoor track at the UL Sports Arena. Instantly, I found myself in a sea of yellow vests, each with the words ‘Volunteer’ stamped on the back….
You see, I had signed up to serve as a ‘steward’ for the Milford Hospice 10k fundraiser. My spring semester at UL I decided to search for volunteer opportunities because I was looking to build stronger connections within the Limerick community. I made an account with www.studentvolunteer.ie/ul and I quickly signed up to help out with several organizations. I have had such a positive time volunteering this past semester that I wanted to share my experience with others to encourage more to give back to their community.
There were probably close to 100 people of all ages volunteering with me on race day. We were each given a vest and a bagged lunch. There was also enough hot tea and coffee to keep everyone warm and awake. Before long, we were formally welcome and given instructions for the day.
While there were many students there, I asked to be put in a group with a bunch of senior citizens because they looked like they were having the best time together! Our little group exchanged pleasantries and then we set out to our posts along the trail.
I have had such a positive time volunteering this past semester that I wanted to share my experience with others to encourage more to give back to their community.
I asked one of my fellow volunteers about their connection to the Milford Hospice centre and why they came out to help with the race. He told me that he would bet that there was not a person in Limerick county who didn’t have a connection to the Hospice center. This would become extremely evident as the race progressed — the crowd of runners, joggers, and walkers was enormous.
Our task was to cheer on the participants and make sure they were safe from traffic. I enjoyed watching everyone pass our little group and I was motivated by their commitment to exercise! There were tons of families, small children, expert marathoners, people with physical disabilities, dog walkers, red-faced novices who were pushing themselves, focused teenagers with headphones, and friends gossiping to one another. It almost made me want to run myself.
After all of the participants passed our station I made it back to UL and I walked past the finish line at the Sports Arena. I was surprised to see that many people had already finished the race and I stopped to watch and listen as others cheered on their neighbors or crossed the line themselves.
I was told later that 1,500 people came out to support Milford Hospice that morning and over €30,000 was raised for the centre. It was really nice being apart of the race that morning and I am glad that I put myself out of my comfort zone and signed up to volunteer by myself.
Swim Inc. Swim
I kept my volunteering mojo flowing and I signed up to participate with Swim Inc. Swim Inc provides aquatic lessons to children with Down Syndrome and Autism. As I have worked with kids with similar developmental needs before, I was excited to have the chance to make some new young friends and play in the pool for an hour each week.
I was paired with another student volunteer and a non-verbal autistic boy (who is about seven years old).. As soon as we got him into the pool, I nicknamed him ‘Little Fish’ because it was apparent he loves being underwater and that he is a really good swimmer! The three of us played for the whole hour and worked on practicing kicking. Little Fish also likes playing with buckets, being thrown into the deep end, and holding his breath. Sometimes he wiggles his body in the silliest way (that I can never replicate, but boy do I try) and I’m working to teach him how to float because I believe it’s the best thing to do in a pool.
Now, each week the three of us swim together. It’s become apparent that Little Fish trusts me and my volunteer partner. He and I work very hard to make sure Little Fish learns how to be a better swimmer and that he is more confident in the water. While it is sometimes hard to communicate with him, the three of us have developed our own little phrases and techniques that work for us in the water.
There are many other volunteers and kids who participate in our pool sessions every week. Some of the kids are expert swimmers and others are timid in the water. Sometimes we all splash each other. Or we accidentally swim into another person. Other times we share techniques, ideas, and games. But most of the time, we just stick with our partners and try to build strong relationships with one another.
Each kid works with two volunteers for the entire session and we try to keep consistency among the volunteers. Many of the volunteers are not accomplished swimmers — but that doesn’t really matter. What does matter, is that we show up.
Volunteering with Swim Inc has quickly become one of the most memorable things I have done at UL. It makes Tuesday my favorite day of the week and it helps keep me active.
Aside from playing with and laughing with Little Fish, I have also met some great university students through the program. After each session on Tuesday nights, you can find our little group chilling out in the sauna together, chatting away about our little fishes.
I urge you to check out studentvolunteer.ie and to browse through the volunteer opportunities there. I swear no one asked me to write this up — I truly stand by this resource. I find so much value in volunteering and I believe that I am a healthier and happier person when I am using my talents and abilities to help others. If you are on the fence about volunteering or if you would like to get back into the game, take the leap! Even if none of your friends want to do it with you, I assure you…you’ll be glad you went for it. There are so many worthy causes and organizations out there that need committed people (like you) to lend a hand.
I find so much value in volunteering and I believe that I am a healthier and happier person when I am using my talents and abilities to help others.
Jenny Schaeffer is completing her Master’s degree in Sociology, focusing on Youth, Community, and Social Regeneration