When I was around 15 I told my mum I signed up for a training session to volunteer. It was for an organisation supporting children with special needs. I remember her being a bit surprised, not knowing that’s something kids do these days. I guess in the past, 15 year-olds didn’t volunteer, let alone with children with disabilities. In the past, they used to stare and not dare to interact with those different from them. But nowadays, it’s kind of like the ‘in-vogue’ thing to do. Teens and young adults’ social life involves getting a group of friends together and volunteering.
It’s amazing that this idea of Tikkun olam and volunteering has now changed. Instead of it being looked at as a chore, our generation has been able to make it fun. This could be attributed to many things – parenting, the schools, the volunteer organisations or the values of teens and young adults evolving. Either way, volunteering has taught me so much, not only about children with disabilities but about the world.
Inclusivity and open-mindedness
Pointing out one of the most obvious lessons, volunteering taught me to be more inclusive. I never felt I had excluded anyone in the past. However, I realised inclusivity means more than just letting someone sit with you at lunch. It’s about saying hi to someone on the streets. It’s about actually getting to know someone before making an assumption. Small things like staring at someone who looks different are actually segregating them from society. It’s making them feel like an outcast. It’s so easy for us to feel or act like it’s us vs them. But in reality, we all live in one community.
We are more similar than we think
Through volunteering, I’ve realised people with disabilities may look and act a bit differently. Though in reality, we’re all the same. Just like us, people with disabilities just want to feel included. Just like us, people with disabilities want to have fun. Whilst our mannerisms may be different, I learned it is possible to form strong, meaningful relationships with people with special needs. They are very capable and have dreams and hopes just like us.
One of the biggest lessons I learned was how to communicate better with others. People with special needs think differently to us. Thus, it is important to explain instructions or ideas in a way that they will understand. This has a lot to do with trial and error. There were many times I’d have to try 5-6 different ways to tell a child to go to the bathroom before it would actually get through to them. Whilst at times it would get frustrating, it actually taught me a very important lesson. Everyone thinks differently and needs different things. Finally, when I would get through to them and get them to go to the bathroom, I would feel so good about myself.
This can be a beneficial lesson not just when dealing with children with special needs but also with people in general. It taught me that just because I may say something with the intention of it coming across a certain way, it may come across completely differently to the other person and vice versa. It really opened my eyes to the fact that the way you express something comes across differently to different people and it is important to cater towards your audience.
Celebrating small achievements
I remember every once in a while, we would take the kids to go bowling. I would usually be paired with one of my favourite kids. It was always so fun to be with her because she would literally get excited about every little thing. Every time she’d hit even just one bowling pin, she’d start cheering and get so excited. Even if she didn’t win, she’d run up and hug the winner and celebrate as if it was her that won. Something like bowling that doesn’t seem that exciting or like such an achievement to me, was such a big deal to her. What’s more, her happiness and excitement wore off on everyone around her, including me.
Happiness is contagious
Following on from the previous story, on the days I wasn’t really that enthusiastic or didn’t really feel like volunteering, I would go with somewhat of a pessimistic attitude. But once I saw her excitement and her celebrating all these small things I take for granted, my whole mood changed. I came out of that two hour session feeling amazing. In a way, my buddy actually did more for me than I felt like I did for her.
We all hear the saying ‘happiness is contagious’, but I don’t think we actually believe it, or at least I didn’t. But now, I realise it’s so true. The people you surround yourself with are so important. They can change how you feel about yourself, how you view the world and even something as simple as how you will feel that day. It is so important to surround yourself with optimistic people that light you up and make you feel happy.
I could go on and explain many more lessons I’ve learned. However, these were just a few that stood out. I think volunteering is so important, not only because it’s a nice thing to do but it’s something you can learn so much from. Selfishly, it is an activity that benefits you as a person. It’s not always just about being selfless or giving back to the community. It’s also about improving yourself, understanding the world around you and gaining life skills you would have never learned otherwise.
I’m not saying everyone should volunteer with children with disabilities (even though I had an amazing time doing it). Everyone though should find an area they are passionate about. You should find a way to volunteer, whether that be with the elderly, mental health crises, homelessness, environmental causes, the list goes on. You can find endless volunteer opportunities on The Social Blueprint.