Volunteering: salve for the soul

Nine months ago I was so dispirited by the growing preponderance of right wing extremism in the world — particularly the burgeoning of Donald Trump’s popularity — that I decided I had to take steps to stop myself descending into a morass of despondency. More as an act of rebellion than of compassion, I started volunteering at a refugee centre here in Britain. I’ve decided to write about it in the hope that others may decide to do something similar. It really does help dispel one’s feeling of helplessness, and, of course, somebody benefits from your act of selfish selflessness.

Stepping over the threshold of a simple doorway, you leave the busy square behind you. It’s a startling transition from day-lit cacophony outside to the static scene of waiting figures — sitting, slumped, sprawled — on folding chairs lining a corridor, starkly lit by flickering strip lights. Someone slumbers, a hoodie obscures their face. Others gaze resignedly at faded walls. But some break into shy smiles as you approach. One, who you once helped to complete an interminable government form, thrusts out a hand to be shaken. Grins. Calls you by your name. That’s when you first feel it — the gentle flush of gratification.

Another glow, dissimilar but connected, makes itself felt when you meet and greet fellow volunteers. French words seem to describe it best: bonhomie, esprit de corps. There are some — different types — you’d never normally meet in your so-called ‘everyday’ life, but you’re more than glad to rub shoulders with them now. To be on a team with such people. To share a common goal, if only for that day.

Duties assigned, you go about your business. You carry out the chores allocated to you, often different depending on the week and the need. You glean a glimmer of self-satisfaction when, from past experience, you know what to do: not fill cups of tea too full in case they slop on the floor; ask questions clearly, kindly, when you register new people; judge who needs help with form-filling and who might be better encouraged to try it themselves; how to arrange donated clothes for a client’s best access. And more. Sometimes, regularly, you learn something new, and you experience a small revelation — ‘ah, that’s the way it’s done.’

What gives these ordinary activities a deeper meaning is the more-often-than-not change of expression on the face of a client with whom you’re interacting. Trepidation, suspicion, skepticism, occasionally aggression, can sometimes be found in a client’s eyes, even as an appeal is made. You’ve learnt to weigh the desire to help with a dose of pragmatism. Can you — any of you — help? You’re relieved when you usually realize that if not you, so-and-so can do something. Whether you help or are able to reassure that help can be given, the eyes soon change. They relax. Become softer. And then, when an advisor appointment is made, or an English lesson arranged, or a plate of food served, or the right shirt is found, or a form filled in, relief is evident — for both of you. If not voiced, gratitude is invariably obvious. You feel the flush of gratification more strongly than earlier.

At the end of the day, as you push your way towards home, you feel lighter than when you arrived that morning. You know — consciously or not — that someone breathes a little easier because of your effort. Also, selfishly, you feel somewhat less oppressed by the daily onslaught of contemptible politics and bigoted media. Your day may have represented an infinitesimal act of compassion in the scheme of things, but add tens, hundreds, thousands of such acts, put them all together, and you’re secure in the knowledge that they make a truly discernible difference.

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