(This post is mainly for the benefit of new readers and followers, as the theme and photos have been seen here before)
I woke up today thinking about the time I was a volunteer in the community. Hoping to stay active, and get to know more people, I decided to be an unpaid volunteer in three different jobs.
The first job I took on was cycle safety training, at the local junior school around the corner. As this was seasonal, I also applied to work for the Fire Service, as a community volunteer. The bulk of this job involved fitting smoke alarms in the houses of elderly or disadvantaged people living in a twenty-mile radius of Dereham. I was given a short training course, issued with a uniform and identity badge, and then took delivery of a small toolkit, as well as a few cases of smoke alarms. I also had to attend a course on how to safely use a step-ladder of just three rungs. 🙂
This service was provided free of charge by The Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service, and restricted to people over the age of 65, or with a registered disability. I initially agreed to work for 2-3 days a week, from 8 am until 1 pm, so that I could always be back to take Ollie out. I would receive a list of names and addresses, and make appointments to call on them and fit the smoke alarms. I was issued with a mobile phone to make these calls, and paid a mileage rate to use my own car. Whilst at the houses, I would also carry out a general fire safety check, and give advice to the person living there.
This soon became busier than I expected, with me being asked to make more appointments than I could ever keep up with in the time I had allowed for it. Then I was asked to give talks to community groups too, speaking about fire safety in the home, and the importance of having smoke alarms fitted. If that wasn’t enough, I was also seconded to the school fire safety unit, where we did a dramatised presentation to busloads of local school-children, at specially organised venues. For most of those, I had to play the part of a fireman, in full kit and equipment.
Very soon, I was out of the house most days of the week, and struggling to get back in time for the dog-walking. Despite that, I was constantly asked to do more and more, by people who were being paid a good salary to organise us volunteers, then watching us do what they should have been doing for their salaries. So after more than a year, I gave it up. What had started as a feel-good community experience had rapidly turned into an unpaid, demanding job.
Meanwhile, I was still doing the cycle safety courses at Beetley School. I did get to meet a lot of local people, many of whom I still see around here, and they remember me teaching their kids to ride bikes safely. But this volunteering job also had an unpleasant side. This was in the form of a new regional supervisor, again someone getting well paid to supervise people doing this for free, instead of doing it themselves. She delighted in criticising me at every opportunity, as well as treating the kids as if we were doing them a favour by allowing them onto the course. And most of them were only ten years old, too young to be expected to respond like adults of course.
So not long after quitting the Fire Service job, I parted company with Norfolk Road Safety too.
I reflected on something my Dad had once told me, a hangover from his days as a regular soldier. “Never volunteer”.
But when I heard that Dereham Windmill was looking for volunteer guides, I weakened, and offered my services. I was strict this time though. I told them that I would work one day a week only, and finish at 2 pm. This seemed to suit them, so I received a short instructional course about the windmill, and started the next week. It had recently been refurbished, and opened to the public as an historical building and educational experience. I took some photos of it, when I worked there.
Unfortunately, some of the other volunteers frequently asked me to cover more days, including weekends and special Windmill Events. I stuck to my guns, and only ever worked on Fridays, something that didn’t make me feel very popular. Then they opened a new visitor’s cafe, and wanted everyone to go on a rota of working in there too. I declined, as I didn’t want to be a volunteer in a cafe, when I had joined to work inside the windmill. This made me something of an outsider, the ‘Friday Man’ who wouldn’t do anything else. Then after I had been there for some time, I developed vertigo, and that didn’t suit constant trips up and down stairs that are little more than vertical ladders.
I took some time off, trying to get the condition treated. But I eventually decided I had done enough, and resigned my job there too.
I have no inclination to volunteer again. Although I am glad that I did what I did, and gave a lot back to the local community, I learned that volunteers are often put upon, and always expected to do more than agreed. If you are thinking of volunteering, be careful what you choose to do.