Rob Howe shares his experience of volunteering.
A few years ago I returned to England from a period of travel. I was inspired by the world and the experiences I’d lived. A wise man in the South of San Francisco Bay helped me understand that the people around me are really important. Above all, these individuals shape my world profoundly.
Whilst on my travels I developed perspective on my life and realised that life wasn’t going the way I wanted. I was lost and looking for a way to change my life’s direction. There were ideas and images for future projects that danced in my mind and heart. However, I knew if any of my future endeavours were to stand a chance, I needed to find the people with whom I could grow with. Seth Godin calls these people one’s tribe.
Finding my tribe
To begin with, I was unsure where to start. It was the tip of a friend that pointed me in the direction of The May Project Gardens in Morden. The project works with young people. Plus, it has been designed with permaculture principles and is committed to bringing eco-solutions to life to urban populations. It focused on areas I was interested in and which I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about. As a result, I found people who shared similar values to me, who could teach me new things as well.
It’s amazing what happens when one begins giving without expecting a return. After a month or two of consistent volunteering, the co-founder Ian Solomon Kawall, recommended I attend a week-long festival of social justice named The Spark. I attended the festival and met many like-minded souls, some of whom are still dear friends. Volunteering opened up avenues into the world that otherwise would have been out of reach for me.
Ian taught me a lot about permaculture and about the process of setting up a grassroots organisation. I witnessed first-hand the powerful impact an organisation can have when it is embedded in a community and opens its space consistently to the local population.
I got satisfaction from giving. But this was not my primary motivator for volunteering. After a while I developed a sense of belonging with a group of people whom I shared an identity with. In the community I was nurtured, I was mentored and I was educated. Thanks to my time volunteering with The May Project Gardens I connected to my gift of writing and storytelling. I received needed encouragement that helped me grow and blossom a little more.
After a year, or so, I felt my own rhythm calling me on. I was still hungry to learn and longed to continue meeting new people. I’d come to understand that I wished to establish my own project and through a synchronicity, I responded to an opportunity to volunteer in a furniture upcycling shop on The Isle of Dogs called The One Love Pop Up Shop.
The community in East London, situated in the shadow of Canary Wharf brought me into the heart of a community with profound social challenges. The lasting gem that came from my time volunteering at One Love was the relationship I developed with the project founder. Project founders, from what I have experienced, care deeply about a cause, they hold vision and charisma, and are deeply committed to the work that they do. They are socially minded and are tuned in to the needs of a local community and beyond, usually acting with an eco-sensitive consciousness.
Junior Mtonga, the founder at One Love, shared a lot of knowledge with me about the regeneration of underused and derelict spaces. He also supported me by letting me use the shop space to put on open mic events. In return for my time, I was being given opportunities to grow.
Opportunity to learn
Junior also supported my learning journey. Through his contacts I gained access to a funded weekend course at The Eden Project. There I met many inspiring people who are doing important work at the grassroots level across the United Kingdom. With every week that passed, I was learning about my place in the world. I was forming connections and I was understanding with greater clarity and sensitivity social issues that affect many people locally and nationally. Volunteering supported me to begin living with greater consciousness and competence to be an informed and active citizen.
Of course, there were challenging moments as well. I was confronted by the level of organisation that was present at times. In other words, the manner in which things get done may not always be the most efficient and timekeeping may not always be the sharpest at the grassroots level. Now, depending on how one looks at these matters, they may, or may not be important. I was coming from a teaching background with sharp professional values, which were drilled into me whilst I trained and worked. To be confronted by a counter-culture of these values was challenging.
Sometimes, I found it frustrating to be in a project which may not be functioning in an optimal way. Then, I’d apply problem-solving and initiative, but this wasn’t always welcomed or adopted by the project founder. This led to tension and unrest. It’s important to understand how invested and committed you are willing to be before throwing yourself into a volunteering position and to be clear on what your place in the project is, if you are wanting to give more than a few hours on a Sunday.
How you can get started with volunteering
Volunteering with community projects has really fed my journey of growth and development. I started locally to where I lived and asked friends for pointers of where I could start. However, I’m sure there are noticeboards, social media and google, which can assist in your search. I was motivated to volunteer because I wanted to meet new people and find my tribe. Yet, what I found instead was mentorship, connection to my gifts, experiences I would never of had access to otherwise. The most important thing, in my opinion, is the way in which one volunteers. Meaning, it’s important to give from a place of love and openness, with a sincere willingness to help the organisation you are volunteering with. If you can focus in on your interests, then you will experience a sense of coming to life. When this happens all benefit from your lived passion and zest.