As many of us gear down for the festive period, an army of volunteers is gearing up to support charities to deliver vital services to those in need.
It’s that time of year again: we’re about to be bombarded by the positivity of Christmas TV. Over the next four weeks we’ll see countless shows and movies reflect – through familiar clichés - our experiences of the festive season.
It’s hard for me to put my finger on the exact TV show or movie, but I’m certain that my view of volunteering at Christmas has been indelibly shaped by TV Christmas specials. I can see the plot in my head: our favourite characters end up - through a hilarious turn of events - at a homeless hostel dishing out the turkey and singing carols.
The reality is of course, not quite so simple; it’s unlikely that we can just turn up at a hostel and be able to help. This is because the great outpouring of generosity at this time of year can often leave charities overwhelmed. They need time to organise themselves, find suitable volunteer roles, provide training and ensure they have enough staff to supervise and support volunteers.
One of the most established Christmas volunteering programmes is run by the homelessness charity, Crisis. Crisis at Christmas began life in 1971 and involves over 9,000 volunteers during the Christmas week to help thousands of people in need to support. As you would expect from such a long running programme, the volunteer roles have been well identified and the sign up process allows people to find a role that speaks to them.
This is what’s great about Crisis at Christmas: people from all walks of life are given the opportunity to use their skills to help. Hairdressers, dog handlers, yoga teachers, truck drivers, performers, musicians, sewing machine operatives and healthcare professionals can call contribute based on their skill set.
This surge of volunteering enables charities like Crisis to meet the inevitable increase in demand at time of year that encompasses both Christmas and New Year. Interestingly, some charities report very different drivers behind this demand across the two holidays. If Christmas need is driven by loneliness and poverty, New Year’s demand can – at least in some cases - be driven by people looking for help to overcome their challenges.
Get Connected is a young people’s helpline whom we are supporting through the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund. They support young people aged under 25, whatever their issue, to get the help that they need.
The charity reports that, whilst their demand remains constant over Christmas, the period just before and after New Year’s Day see more people contacting them for request for help. These are often young people who have made a New Year’s resolution but don’t know where to start. There is also an increase in queries from potential volunteers, offering to give their time to staff the helpline’s telephones, email, SMS and webchat channels.
What happens to these volunteers after the holidays? Just like our favourite TV families, life for many of them seems to return to normal – at least until next year. Not everyone thinks this is a good thing, preferring to emphasise the need for year round rather than seasonal volunteers.
I don’t subscribe to this view. If we want more people to volunteer we need to ensure that volunteer opportunities come in all shapes and sizes, so people have choices that fit around their lifestyles. Besides, this army of volunteers will be doing something that many of us will not be doing this year – spending their holidays supporting strangers rather than celebrating with their friends and family. And for that they need applauding.
*CC Photo by Angela Palleser and Justin Clara.