Wednesday, 17 June 2015

30 Days Wild Day 17: How Volunteering Has Helped Me

I've decided to something a little different for my random act of wildness today. I'm currently in the process of looking for my next volunteering role since the end of the Chi peregrine project is approaching and I want to make sure I have something lined up to fill the space. My search has left me thinking a lot about the volunteer work I have done so far and how it has affected my life.

As some of you may know and most probably don't, I've been self-employed since 2012, working from home as a pet portrait artist. This wasn't what I had originally planned to do, it was purely by chance that I fell into it, but in two and a half years I have had a steady stream of clients, both new and returning, and it has provided a way for me to earn some money while figuring out what direction I want to head in. In Autumn 2013, I applied for the role of volunteer retail assistant at the RSPB Pulborough Brooks nature reserve, partly because working from home can be very isolating and I felt I needed to have some form of interaction with the outside world, but mainly because I had developed a keen interest in wildlife while dabbling in bird illustrations and I wanted to explore that interest further.

I've always been a relatively shy person, particularly when I'm meeting people for the first time, as I'm sure many others are. When I started at Pulborough, I had this shyness and coupled with this, I struggled with anxiety that I had developed when I was at university, something that I still have although I'm learning to control it, and that anxiety used to make it very hard for me to venture outside of my "comfort zone" and try new things. So as you can imagine, despite the fact that I had worked in retail before, applying to Pulborough took quite a bit of courage.

Since the charity relies on the generosity of busy people giving up their time for free, volunteers are valued extremely highly by the RSPB, as I'm sure they are by other organisations too. From day one at Pulborough, I was made to feel very welcome by all staff and fellow volunteers. My role is a varied one, involving general retail work, membership recruitment, giving advice and information about wildlife and talking about the RSPB's work. It's been over a year and a half since I started there and in that time, I have noticed myself becoming more confident in many respects, particularly when it comes to talking to the public.

Up until the beginning of this year, my role at Pulborough was the only extra work I was doing alongside my commissions. I have spent a long time trying to figure out what I really want to do with myself and ultimately what kind of impact I want to make. At the end of 2014, I realised that I want to be doing something that can truly make a difference, no matter how small, and have a positive impact on the natural world. I had picked up a lot of new knowledge about nature while at Pulborough and it had only peaked my interest in working within the field even more.

2015 has been all about me setting the wheels in motion to make this change. My entire academic foundation is in the arts as that was the field I had originally intended to work in, so I was starting with basically nothing to go on. I knew I needed to get experience by doing further volunteer work as well as venture back into the land of studying. Of course, as I've mentioned already, having anxiety makes it all kinds of difficult for me to reach out to people and start new ventures. I decided I was not going to let that hold me back this time and I gave myself the motto of "Be Brave" to be repeated in my head whenever I was too afraid to do something.

My volunteer work for the Marine Conservation Society as a Beachwatch organiser has been particularly helpful in my quest to banish my anxiety. For someone who has always hated public speaking of any kind and still struggles with shyness from time to time when faced with strangers, organising events and being in charge of people I've never met before seemed like an absolutely mental thing to voluntarily do! However, I knew for a fact that if I pushed myself to do it, not only would I gain a little more confidence, I would also develop important skills such as organisation, delegation and surveying. "Be Brave" was used in this instance and I have since successfully carried out two beach clean-ups with two brilliant and friendly teams of volunteers.

When I did my first Beachwatch briefing to the group in March, I was incredibly nervous and had been for the couple of days running up to the event. A couple of family members and friends were there and I think that helped but at my second one, earlier this month, I had no one I knew there and I still managed to make it through. What I've really learnt is that the further I push myself out of that pesky "comfort zone", the bigger the rewards are.

Now we come to the peregrine project. I very nearly didn't apply for this when I first came across it on the RSPB website. Don't ask me why; I have no clear answer! I kept thinking "I can always do it next year", "it's a long way to travel and you don't know the area" and various thoughts along those lines. In the end, though, I gave myself a mental shake and talking to, applied my motto and sent the email. I had actually worked with Lauren, the person running the project, at Pulborough in the past so I was pleased I would at least know one face, even if it meant I'd be working with a brand new team of people.

I can't even tell you how relieved I am that I took the plunge. I was initially apprehensive because it was my first year on the project, my peregrine knowledge was sparse and I knew most of the volunteers had been doing it for years. I didn't want to make a fool of myself. Writing this now, it seems laughable that I these thoughts went through my head. Everyone has to start somewhere, right? We aren't born with a wealth of knowledge; we have to pursue it over time. The further we get through the project, the more I enjoy it and most especially, the more I enjoy talking to the public and teaching them. It really is a fantastic feeling to talk about a subject I am so passionate about and see the enthralled faces of visitors young and old as they absorb the facts.

To you, it might seem utterly ridiculous that I get so worked up over a small thing like volunteering or trying something new, but that's anxiety for you. If you're unfortunate enough to have it too, then maybe you can relate. It's pretty hard to explain the feelings I get to those lucky ones who don't have them. I'm so glad that I have pushed myself this year. My knowledge and skills base is expanding with everything I do and I honestly feel like volunteering has had a huge impact on me personally. This time two years ago, I never thought I'd be saying that I enjoy talking to the public!

If you're considering becoming a volunteer, just do it! I cannot recommend it highly enough. There are so many benefits for both parties and it doesn't have to be time-consuming; you give only the time you can afford to give. I've put a few links at the end of this post that will send you in the right direction.

If you've made it through this entire, rambling post-I salute you.

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