Why volunteer?

Stocktaking my reasons to be cheerful in the months after retiring from a long and happy career in teaching, my list looked something like this:

Enjoying the freedom of a non-timetabled life? Check.
Resetting my body clock to a slower pace? Check.
Relishing having time with friends and family? Check.
Abandoning myself to a frenzy of booking cheap flights not in term time? Check.
Feeling good about doing things for others? Hmmm, not so much.

Whilst the whole concept of ‘giving something back’ to your community can sound rather trite and clichéd, it is undeniably the backbone of volunteering. An awareness of my own good fortune in having had a happy, settled home life and a rewarding career was compelling me to do something to redress the balance of the life chances scales so obviously tipped in my favour….and so completely weighted the wrong way for so many other people.

Why Back on Track?
On my initial visit to Back on Track, my first impression whilst sitting in the cafe waiting to see Rachel Garrett was of a professional, well run and thriving community. (Actually, that’s not quite true. My first impression was how on earth am I going to manage those stairs regularly? Fortunately I’ve now overcome my irrational suspicion of the lift). After an encouraging chat with Rachel, we decided it made sense for me to volunteer as a learning mentor with the Basic English Group. That feeling of being personally uplifted by the positivity and warmth of welcome from everyone I encountered on that first day has only grown stronger in the three months since I started.

I think Back on Track is a genuinely healthy space. The reception volunteers are efficient and smiling, volunteers and students alike greet each other with both interest and respect, and just as in the best houses you are drawn to the kitchen as the heart of the home, the cafe sets the tone for the collaboration and sharing which seem to be the natural way of things here.

What do I get out of it?
I felt a bit like the new girl to begin with, but Sue soon made me feel both welcome and useful, and I have really enjoyed spending time with individual students, getting to know their strengths and being able to work with them on improving their areas of weakness. I’ve always taught in the 11-18 age range, so adult learning is a new and surprisingly different arena for me. Teenagers can certainly be reluctant learners, skilled at procrastination, but they are also open and fearless when it comes to meeting a new challenge. Adult learners are very different; they are often highly motivated, but hampered by a lifetime’s worth of avoidance strategies. When it comes to literacy skills, having spent so long convinced that they can’t, it takes patience and time to coax them into the belief that they can. In the process of experimenting with the best ways of helping students to overcome some of these hurdles, I feel very much as though I am developing new skills too.

Volunteering for me is about the satisfaction of learning something new, the laughter and camaraderie of a happy and purposeful environment and working as part of a team….and with free tea and fabulous cakes, what’s not to love?

Sally Petrie