In 2011 I left my previous employment of 22 years as a minister in the Church of Ireland because of an ever deepening problem with depression. When I began making a remarkable process of recovery, through rediscovering faith in God, family and myself, I was put in contact with Barbara Kennedy at the Volunteer Centre in Magherafelt via my support worker Ann McKernan in Action Mental Health (an amazing organisation!)
I have always been interested in nature and wildlife as a fairly serious hobby, taking part in bird surveys, leading nature walks etc. I was put in touch with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who were looking for volunteers in the Mid Ulster area at that time. The RSPB, like most other environmental NGO’s, cannot function without a huge input from their volunteers, and volunteering with them was like joining a big happy family, where everyone plays their part to make great things happen.
My initial involvement was to carry out a Farmland Bird Survey near Ballyronan. This was great fun, although very tiring, wading for five hours through fields of barley in the rain lol. I was then put in touch with Colin Graham, the Volunteer Development Officer at their headquarters at Belvoir Forest in Belfast. I have been able through them to lead Dawn Chorus events for various community and wildlife groups in the area, enabling me to share my passion and knowledge of birds. Perhaps the greatest and most enjoyable part has been to volunteer at The Big Wild Sleepout, a family event which has proved hugely successful for the RSPB and has introduced many adults and children to nature. One thing that I have learned from the RSPB is the importance of managing volunteers well, encouraging them, giving lots of quality training and seeking to develop and support them in their roles in the organisation.
Volunteering has played a key role in my recovery from depression. Through volunteering with the RSPB, I have made many new friends, which has reduced the sense of isolation caused by depression. My physical health has improved markedly as well, with being more active outdoors (all that exercise and free vitamin D!) Perhaps though, the most important contribution to recovery was made from the sense of wellbeing, value and respect from being part of such a group of people in a wonderful organisation as the RSPB. Mental illness robs a person of their self-esteem and self-worth, volunteering with the RSPB has restored much of this. Eventually this voluntary work led to a job with Upperlands Community Development Ltd. as their Environmental Project Office, organising family friendly wildlife events, litter picking and surveying wildlife.
To sum up, volunteering has made a huge difference in my life, aiding my recovery from serious illness and leading to employment. If you have never volunteered before, lift the phone, change your life as well as someone else’s.