From volunteer to career: how giving your time could win your dream job

5 September marks the seventh International Day of Charity, celebrated on the anniversary of Mother Teresa's death.

Like charity work, volunteering aims to make the world that little bit better.

But the benefits of volunteering don’t just flow one way – it can be a rewarding, fulfilling and life-affirming experience for volunteers as well. Getting involved in volunteering can create physical health benefits, positively improve mental wellbeing and even, according to some studies, help you to live longer!

For many young people, voluntary work can also provide a first taste of the working world. It can set you up with the tools, experience and confidence to tackle education and employment head-on.

Sounds too good to be true, right?! To find out whether volunteering really is all it’s cracked up to be, we spoke to three young people to get the lowdown on what volunteering means to them.

“Knowing that you’re doing something good just makes you happy!”

Amelia is an apprentice conservation officer. She started volunteering in 2016 when she was thinking about what she wanted to do after school. “I knew I was interested in conservation work and I was inspired by my grandmother’s love of nature,” she says, “so I volunteered for the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust”.

Once involved, Amelia was quickly empowered to make a real difference. She was immersed in practical activities, such as planting trees and building bird boxes: “I learnt how to do these things safely and built up my base knowledge.”

The good reputation that Amelia gained through her voluntary work directly helped her to secure her first job as an apprentice conservation officer at the Ribble Rivers Trust: “Based on the hard work that I’d put in and the fact that I’d proved I could do what’s required, they offered me this opportunity. Networking is a big thing in the environmental sector,” she explains, “and it helped me a lot to make connections and learn from other people.”

Professionally, volunteering has been a launch pad for Amelia and enabled her to start out on a competitive career path, but there have also been personal benefits too. “I’ve made so many friends”, she says, “and being outdoors volunteering, knowing that you’re doing something good and helping, just makes you happy!”

Amelia's key piece of advice? “Don’t be afraid to volunteer if you’re young. People want you there. They want to listen to your ideas, pass on their knowledge and share their passion.”

Part of Amelia's voluntary work involved planting trees.

“If I could go back in time, I would have volunteered much earlier!”

When Josh graduated with a master’s in Organised Crime, Terrorism and Security, he found it much more challenging to find a job than he'd expected. “I had all the academic knowledge,” he explains, “but no real life experience.”

Josh was encouraged to volunteer in a local college and began to put his learning into practice by working with them on safeguarding. “I shadowed the student welfare officer, learnt how to communicate with vulnerable students and how to approach difficult subjects – all in real-life.”

As someone who had never volunteered before, Josh’s eyes were also opened to the personal benefits of volunteering. “When you feel like you’ve done something for someone in a difficult situation,” he says, “you gain self-belief and pride in yourself. You really feel like it’s worth it.”

Following his voluntary work, Josh was offered a position as the designated safeguarding lead and student coach at the college. Now he's a community cohesion officer and insists: “If I hadn't had that opportunity, I wouldn’t be in the job I’m in today.” Josh is quick to promote volunteering to the young people he works with too: “You don’t get paid, but you are gaining skills that will help you get that perfect job. If I could go back in time, I would have volunteered much earlier!"

Josh's voluntary work taught him how to communicate with different people in challenging situations.

The health benefits of volunteering

  • It helps to combat low mood

Helping other people makes you happy! It can also help to distract you from your own problems or put them into perspective. This more positive outlook on life can help to lower your stress levels and boost your immune system which, in turn, can protect you against disease. Volunteering can also help you to build up a community of like-minded friends, which helps you to feel more connected and purposeful.

  • It builds your confidence

Learning new skills, doing something different and making new friends all help to build up self-esteem. Achieving something you’d never have done before, or never believed possible, can send your self-confidence sky-high (and looks great on your CV too!).

  • It keeps you active

Getting out and about will not only keep you energised and fit, but will also help you to shed negative thoughts, lift your mood and boost your overall wellbeing. A study from Carnegie Mellon University found that older adults who were regular volunteers were less likely to develop high blood pressure than those who didn't volunteer. Avoiding high blood pressure can lower the risk of serious health conditions like heart disease and strokes. So giving support to others, along with living a healthy lifestyle, could help you to live longer too!

If you want to read more about how volunteering can benefit you, there’s lots of useful information on Mental Health Foundation.

“It defined my journey and career path so far.”

Volunteering overseas can also be a fantastic way to combine adventure and personal growth. Putting yourself outside of your comfort zone in a new country, with new people, can spark that ‘lightbulb moment' you need to decide your future direction.

Callum had volunteered throughout school but had never considered volunteering abroad until he was introduced to the charity Project Trust. When he left school, he had his sights set on a career in architecture, but an underlying interest in education inspired him to teach English and IT at a primary school in Nepal for a year first. “Volunteering as a teacher in such a rural setting," he explains, “was a prime opportunity for me to develop my leadership, resilience and confidence, as well as gain experience in the education sector.”

Callum’s year in Nepal wasn’t easy. His mum was diagnosed with a terminal illness and his teaching partner had to return home due to sickness. Callum was faced with a difficult choice. “It was a defining moment in my life," he says, "I chose to double my workload, live and cook by myself, and cope with being away from home and away from my mum, without my normal support mechanisms.” He would wake up at 5am to work on the farm, collect water and build relationships within the community. He’d then teach all day and mark homework all evening. “It was a real test of character and it made me realise that I thrived under pressure. In reflection, it defined my journey and career path so far.”

Since returning home from his year abroad, Callum has shelved his architectural ambitions and taken up an internship with the Project Trust. He now helps to support new volunteers and spread the message about the benefits of voluntary work.

I feel strongly that gaining real world experience is incredibly important for life after school. The voluntary sector is the perfect chance for young people to gain these experiences and make themselves more employable – no matter what sector they would like to go into.”

To find out more about Amelia, Josh and Callum's stories, visit our Careers profiles.

Callum's job now involves supporting new volunteers.

Where could volunteering take you?

Whilst celebrating young people like Amelia, Josh and Callum, their stories are also an opportunity for inspiration – where could volunteering take you? Whether it’s meeting new people, travelling abroad, or kick-starting your career, there are endless possibilities out there. So, grab the opportunity, take a leap of faith and remember that your future is in your hands.

For more inspiration about how to kick-start your career, visit BBC Bitesize Careers.

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