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I tried volunteering as a hobby about three years ago. I'm really not very good at it, the main problem being that a volunteer such as I has to strike a balance between doing what is asked of him, and his desire to more good than is currently being achieved. I am in the fortunate position of knowing more about most things than most people, which obviously enables me to offer enormously useful advice in almost every circumstance in which I find myself, indeed to propose changes to the way things are done so that they can be done better. This can cause me some frustration when my proposals are not immediately accepted. It also means that in order to go on being a volunteer I have to contribute to what is very often an inefficient and time consuming process. I think you are beginning to see where my shortcomings as a volunteer originate.

I remember one day setting out to deliver some leaflets. We spent an entire morning distributing a very small number of leaflets to a relatively small number of destinations. This certainly set up a conflict within me because my goal oriented outlook on life thought we should have got many more leaflets to many more places. Everyone else involved was very happy that we'd had a good, successful, satisfying morning, the difference being that they were all much more interested in the process of delivering leaflets, and the interactions with the recipients. This task was part of a project with a limited lifetime. I have not sought out others like it.

I also had a bash at helping out with an IT literacy campaign to introduce the elderly (however you define that) to the benefits of computers and the internet. The first anomaly here is that, as someone who retired from work a while ago, I am in the category 'elderly', which put me in the camp of both victim and perpetrator. And again, my goal oriented approach left me frustrated with the old people's attitude. They had no wish to learn about computers or the internet - they just wanted to sit and talk for an hour. I just couldn't reconcile the lack of progress with the number of hours invested.

Which brings me to a volunteering effort which was a bit more successful. I volunteered to sit and talk to someone for an hour a week. So my goal was to sit and talk. My victim's goal was to sit and talk. Some satisfaction all round from just sitting and talking. Goal achieved week by week. And I was quite remarkably lucky in my allocation of my voluntee (someone who has volunteering done to them?) I was allocated to Marcus, a charming, contented, good natured gentleman in his nineties. In the recent past he'd had a few problems with operations which had left him housebound, but not bitter. He received daily attention from local authority appointed carers and was generally pleased with what they did. He was delighted and grateful for the support he got from his wife, and clearly very close to his son. In the more distant past he'd been a ladies' hairdresser on Tottenham Lane, with tales of his (anonymous) clients' foibles and carryings on, and of course much taken with the many changes to Crouch End and Hornsey, and grateful for any gossip I could garner on the Town Hall and various shop openings and closings.

But, I went to  Marcus's funeral recently and met some of his equally charming relatives. I will miss him. Going round every Tuesday afternoon has definitely become part of my routine, and I hope that he benefited from the visits as much as I did. I do believe that simply sitting and talking is important to many people who might otherwise be lonely. As it happens I'm not short of people even older than I am who like me to listen to them. Even without Marcus I still do this for about 8 hours a week, so I don't know if I will seek out another voluntee, but what I may well do, next time I'm asked to sponsor someone to run a marathon, is not to, but to offer my sponsorship instead if they will pop round once a week to have a chat with someone who might otherwise be on their own.

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Tags: visit, voluntary

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