In 2007 I paid to go to Brazil as a volunteer in a team helping build new homes for families living in favelas (slums).
Helping in that way had been something I’d wanted to do since I was 18 but I’d deferred it, went to university instead and life took over for 40 years.
In that 2 week trip with Mission Direct, I saw poverty and suffering in a way I’d never seen before. I also saw many good people dedicating their lives to helping the poor and needy – literally, giving their lives to it. The whole experience made a massive impact on me. It changed my life.
In 2008 I again volunteered as part of a team, this time building classrooms in Zambia for shanty town children. The poverty and need here was an order of magnitude greater than in Brazil and when I got back to the UK I struggled to settle back. I returned in 2009 to build more classrooms in Zambia, this time with my wife Shirley.
For a time, Shirley and I were keen to work overseas for a longer term. I was in discussion with (COINS Global Founder) Larry Sullivan and Ric Law, the head of COINS Foundation at the time, about the possibility of working in northern Zambia with the community Foundation we were sponsoring there. Family reasons prevented this from happening, at which point we decided to devote our efforts to helping locally.
I reduced my working days with COINS Global to 3 in order to free up time. We then got involved in a succession of community projects in Maidenhead, and have continued to this day: distributing food to needy families each week via the local food bank; feeding the homeless; working with the local Street Angels; helping dysfunctional families.
So why do I do these things, why volunteer? It’s for 3 main reasons:
1) Firstly, I believe I’m privileged to enjoy the standard of living I have, in the 5th biggest economy of the globe. Therefore, I find it natural to want to help others who are less privileged or marginalised, or to put it as Larry does, “with privilege comes responsibility.” How can I live as I do when I know the poor, the disadvantaged or the disabled live as they do? I’ve found it impossible to see their situation and NOT respond – respond with my time, my resources, my energy, support and encouragement. It could so easily be me in their situation - we’re separated only by circumstance and accidents of geography or birth.
2) Next, I’m a Christian. This means very different things to different people. For me it’s about way more than simply going to church or being part of a social network of Christians – a club if you like. It’s fundamentally about following Jesus’ radical example to reach out into the community to help the needy and those less fortunate than ourselves - to be the Good Samaritan to strangers, to treat them as our own. It’s about showing compassion and as Ric Law put it, offering a hand-up (and not just a hand-out).
3) Finally, I believe I’m the richer for doing it – not materially of course, but in my understanding of life, of people, of who they are and who I am. I feel far more connected by helping people and also working with other volunteers, relating to them, understanding them.
It’s for these reasons I volunteer. While I’ve life and health to do so, I expect I always will.