During the long, lazy days of summer, it’s so tempting to simply relax and unwind after a busy year in school. However, you will have already read many of the posts on this blog encouraging you to make good use of this time, to read, to experience new things, travel and experience new cultures… Here’s another suggestion: volunteer your time to a non-profit organization. As well as helping the organization, this can benefit you in many ways: valuable experience for your resumé, a sense of community, well-being, and purpose, new connections, and friends.
I have been volunteering my time from home for some years translating for non-profit organizations. However, earlier this year, I decided to fulfill a promise I had been making. I used to live in France and now, back in the UK, I like to spend my vacations across the small pond that we call the English Channel, getting my fix of French cheese! Each time I travel, I am aware of the refugees that are stuck in the port town of Calais and I have often said to myself that I will go there and do something to make a difference to these people’s lives, however small. This promise was hard to fulfill: there were family commitments, work, life took over. After seeing so much in the news about the desperate people who travel to the region to escape war, persecution and uncertain political situations in their own countries, finally, I decided that I just had to take action.
I booked a few days off work and began my research. I discovered many non-profits working in Calais, supporting the refugees and accepting short-term volunteers. I posted in my local refugee help group on social media and within a couple of hours had managed to contact a group locally who were sending volunteers each weekend for the whole month. I found a woman who had booked the same dates as me and was looking for someone to take along, so I could just fit in with her plans – amazing, what a coincidence!
I decided to reach out to the community to see if I could bring donations of items that were needed. It was still cold, so I put out a call for hats, gloves and scarves, to my nearby and online friends as well as local churches. The generous response was overwhelming and I ended up taking 8 sacks of donations.
On arriving in France, I was nervous going to the warehouse that would soon be my place of work with the organisation Help Refugees. I need not have worried, I was met by a group of friendly, dedicated volunteers and staff, part of a community where everyone is accepted and respected, whatever their background or identity. During morning briefing, I learned more about the situation in Calais and how, sadly, the authorities were hostile towards refugees sleeping rough and also towards volunteers distributing food. I was then taken on a tour and discovered that I would spend the first part of my stay working in the warehouse, sorting blankets and sleeping bags that had been donated by the public. We had a huge sense of satisfaction when we had organised the area and made an inventory of all the items.
The next day, I helped out with the organisation Refugee Community Kitchen. These amazing people cook hearty vegan curries for around 1000 refugees each day, as well as for the volunteers. The kitchen was an upbeat place to work; I prepped veg, washed up and prepared the portions for distribution while chatting to the other volunteers. It was interesting to hear their stories: many recent graduates who were taking a year out, a doctor who had given up her only free weekend in months to fly down from Scotland, an American who had already been volunteering in Greece, people from all backgrounds, all united in the common cause of helping people who had lost so much.
I left feeling that I had only made a minor contribution, but had gained so much: I saw a great deal of kindness and dedication and my faith was restored in humanity. I will be going back later this month to take some more donations and check in with how things are going.
I only gave a weekend, but it was a life-changing experience. I urge you to find something that you can be passionate about and give your time to. It doesn’t need to be a big commitment, even if it’s just for a few days over the remaining weeks of summer, you can make a difference and I guarantee that you will also benefit from what you choose to do.