6 ways to volunteer in London
The streets of north London are deserted as I run through them.
It’s Saturday morning, I do not like running, I like sleeping, but I’ve decided that volunteering may be good for my soul, so here I am en route to Kilburn to spend a few hours gardening for an elderly couple, who are unable to do it themselves.
I’m doing this with GoodGym, a charity that combines exercise and doing good in the community. There are three types of activity: a group run, in which volunteers supervised by a running coach jog to a community site to do cleaning or gardening; a mission, in which you go with a small group to the home of an elderly person to help
them; and a coach run, which is a regularly scheduled run to spend time, one-on-one, with an isolated, elderly person.
In a house in Kilburn, Kate – who is in a wheelchair – and her husband, John – who is confined to his bed with a leg ulcer – tell me they heard of GoodGym through a community centre. They have carers most of the time, but the help volunteers provide is invaluable. John, 86, comes from an Irish military family and has lived in Britain since the 1950s. He met Kate, an Australian, not long after he came to London. She was thinking about going home. He said: ‘Why don’t we get married instead?’
There are four of us here to help and in the back garden, I get the shears out and start chopping the overhanging branches of a tree. Fellow volunteer Patrick Luong, who is in his 30s and who grew up in Sheffield, joins me. He doesn’t have an open relationship with his Vietnamese parents and says that meeting old people he can speak to is key to why he volunteers.
Speaking to our host, John, I understand what Patrick means. Volunteering puts you in a position to meet new people and to hear their stories. ‘I’m a bit cheesed off,’ John tells me, referring to his leg ulcer. ‘My wife has been all around the world. Where have I been? Kilburn High Road.’
Having these conversations is part of the appeal of volunteering: it takes you out of your usual social circles and forces you to engage with the wider world. Patrick’s job in finance hasn’t always left him feeling altruistic. But he volunteers for at least 10 hours a week and this has led to him considering a career change – he is poised to move into the charity sector. Lindsay Alderton, who was stuck in a ‘shitty corporate job’ in recruitment, tells me a similar story. For a while, she saw no way out. But the situation she found herself in led to change. ‘It was exploitative on all levels. I became sick and mentally unwell because of it, so I had to leave,’ she says. ‘I’d always wanted to do something that was beneficial for others, but believed I’d have to retrain.’
Instead of retraining, Lindsay, now in her 30s, spent two years volunteering full-time before landing a job as a project co-ordinator for an activist education and training centre in Cataluña. The job makes her feel much better about what she is doing in the world. ‘Volunteering changed my life,’ she says.
On Halloween night, I did a group run with 29 other volunteers. Bella Smith joined because she’d moved from Wales to London to study, wanted to chat to new people, and noticed a GoodGym meeting point at her university. Scott Jones, in his early 40s, who recruits chefs for hotels, told me he found it more worthwhile than competitive running clubs.
Back at Barnsbury Community Centre, we pull up weeds from the garden and scrub the tiled floors of the reception area. I ask three of my comrades if they think volunteering is cool and of the moment. One of them suggests that running is cool, which helps GoodGym attract people to it. Another talks about how, when she was young, she loved being in the Scouts but would also be teased for it. Volunteering, she says, is deemed cooler now than it was then. You don’t have to be earnest to do it.
It is also something that shifts people’s focus away from themselves. ‘Friends of mine were saying I should go to the gym,’ says Ivo Gormley, who founded GoodGym in 2009. ‘But I didn’t like the idea of paying money to run nowhere and lift things that don’t need lifting.’ Supported by money from local authorities, New Balance and BT, GoodGym takes people away from the self-obsessed world of gym mirrors, and sends them out into the fresh air. It makes volunteering fun: you help others and you also get exercise.
Volunteering can help you learn new things and meet new people. It can help you engage with the world. It can add interest to your life or it can lead to profound change. Whatever it might be for you, it’s worth trying.
FIND YOUR BALANCE: 5 WAYS TO VOLUNTEER IN LONDON
Audacious Veg is, in the words of organiser Natalie Szarek, a social enterprise that works with a ‘lot of volunteers who want to learn about growing food, work with young adults, support a local food movement or simply get outdoors for an afternoon’.
BATTERSEA DOGS AND CATS HOME
The venerable animal home couldn’t exist without its volunteers, and communing with furry creatures makes us all feel better.
STEPNEY CITY FARM
Look after farmyard animals and work on the gardens at the community-run Stepney City Farm in east London.
NORTH EAST LONDON MIGRANT ACTION
Brings together activists and volunteers from across London to campaign on issues faced by migrants in vulnerable positions in our communities. Volunteers support migrants in need of friendship, emotional support and legal advice (if qualified).
A charity that turns the food wasted by supermarkets into weekly three-course community meals. Volunteers help facilitate this process.
Read more: How to choose a career