When half the world went into lockdown, "social distancing" was the term on everybody's lips. Here in the U.K., sidewalks were tattooed with two-meter distance markers, families were under house arrest, and we all had to stay far apart, even from those closest to us.
This was harder for some than for others. Those most at risk of the virus had to "shield," which meant they couldn't collect medicines, or even go grocery shopping. And visiting friends? Forget it. It wasn't long before loneliness was our only companion.
But a huge surge of volunteers responded to the coronavirus crisis, helping in every way they could think of. From making regular phone calls, to handcrafting and delivering essential medical equipment, these volunteers have helped and supported people in their toughest and loneliest months.
And volunteering isn't a one-way street – helping others also helps you. Karma's good like that.
In fact, helping other people or animals can help to alleviate feelings of anger, stress and anxiety. The bonds you build can also protect you against depression and loneliness.
I found this to be true when I began voluntary dog walking back in 2014.
My school counselor suggested volunteering as a way to boost my self-esteem and find new purpose. She mentioned The Cinnamon Trust, a national non-profit organization that helps the elderly and terminally ill care for their pets, and I signed up as soon as I could.
After cross-checking my references, the Trust put me in touch with an elderly lady called Sheila and her gorgeous rough collie, Diamond. We all became fast friends and I always looked forward to walking Diamond a few times a week – even if he was only in it for the treats at the end!
Taking him out not only helped Sheila but also improved my physical and mental well-being. I began to feel more confident in myself, knowing I was doing something for someone else. I felt useful and valued, and, just as importantly, was getting outside more.
Now, six years later, I'm still making friends – and making tails wag.
I've made long-lasting friendships with the people I'm helping, and of course their furry companions! And it's wonderful to know I'm giving something back to the community. I take pride in telling people I am a voluntary dog walker.
During the coronavirus pandemic, I was hesitant to continue volunteering. After all, I didn't want to endanger the already-vulnerable people I was visiting. But the scheme's organizers encouraged us to take precautions (wear masks, keep our distance, sanitize the leash, etc.) and carry on if we were able. And I was as grateful as the dog owners.
Volunteering during lockdown helped me stay sane and social. It gave me something to look forward to when every week felt the same, and meant that I wasn't twiddling my thumbs every weekend!
Thankfully, I still had work to keep me occupied during the week. But with over nine million jobs furloughed in the U.K., and over 20 million lost altogether in the U.S., many found themselves with more free time than they knew what to do with.
This was true for my friend, Jessica, who refused to be idle while on furlough.
Instead, she put her sewing prowess to good use to help the healthcare workers in dire need of face masks.
She said, "When the U.K. government announced that masks would be made compulsory on public transport, I knew I had to do something. The announcement had the potential to put a strain on healthcare workers' supplies. So, I decided to get my sewing machine out!"
Jessica was soon overwhelmed by requests from family and friends, but she didn't stop there. "I decided to start selling the masks and donating 50 percent of the profits to the Red Cross Yemen Appeal. I'll give away any masks that I can't sell to local care providers."
Providing the much-needed face masks has restored Jessica's sense of purpose. She said, "Making masks has helped me to feel useful again. I'm also able to practice my sewing skills!"
And Jessica is far from alone. People all around the world have responded to this need in their millions. In the U.K., more than 10 million people have begun volunteering in their local communities.
Using my town's Facebook page, I asked the members what they had been doing to help the community during the pandemic – and I wasn't disappointed. Turns out I live in a very charitable town!
Take Pia Offord, for example. She set up a vegan food bank with her friends and partner in March. She told me, "We created a new community scheme that supports people in need with free vegan food and hygiene products on a drop-in basis."
The group wanted to give back during the challenging times inflicted by COVID-19.
"We saw people struggle in supermarkets, and read desperate stories on social media by fellow residents, and we wanted to support our ever-growing vegan community. So, we decided to build a network of vegan-friendly, independent businesses in the area."
Volunteering can also be greatly beneficial for your career prospects. You can learn a new skill, gain work experience and confidence, and extend your networks. In some cases, voluntary commitments can even lead to a paid position with the same organization.
"It has certainly been a journey!" Pia said. "I've learned so much about food poverty, food distribution, and all the bits behind the scenes that I would have never thought of before. And I've had to pick up a lot of planning and managing skills!
"It's utterly rewarding to receive feedback from those who we have helped and continue to help. Making a difference to those people's lives has made it all worth it!"
Facebook has welcomed groups like Pia's, and even expanded its Community Help feature on a global scale. The new COVID-19 hub enables users to volunteer or request help from their communities, either as an individual, or a page.
Others in my town were quick to use this feature, and have teamed up to support healthcare workers. Collaborating in a Facebook group called "Crafting for COVID," some 700 members (and counting!) have handcrafted teddies, ear savers, visors, headbands, scrub bags, and more for doctors and nurses in the local hospital.
Since April, they have donated over 10,000 items!
In my town, things are beginning to look a little more "normal," with shops reopening and people returning to work. But that means it's likely that the number of volunteers in local communities will start to diminish, though most say they intend to continue post-pandemic.
This includes Paul and Barbara Hillman, founders of a local "4x4 Response" group, who have delivered medical equipment to frontline staff.
Paul said, "The current situation has been a national response and there are volunteer groups all over the U.K.. We have driven over 2,700 miles and we are currently still "on call" as well as starting to get back to work. We will continue to volunteer for the group as long as we are still able to.
"The motivation is to help the community when needed as we have the vehicle that can do it. Although it has also been nice to be able to get out and do something useful rather than sitting at home."
I couldn't agree more, Paul.
Are you a volunteer? Or have you been helping your community during the coronavirus pandemic? Let us know in the comments, below!
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