Founder of Young Voices Heard, James Cathcart, reflects on his personal journey from volunteer to Chief Executive, highlighting his value of  volunteering and volunteers throughout his career. [First written for young volunteers on World Youth Skills Day 15th July 2017 (and conference presentation) and updated for International Volunteers Day 5th Dec 2017]

“My life and career was shaped by an early decision to volunteer, starting with short-term trips with the International Voluntary Service and followed by  a full-time role on a one year  placement with Community Service Volunteers. I had originally intended to be a journalist, but my volunteering interests during a period of unemployment, became the foundation of my subsequent career choices in the voluntary sector working with children and young people. This article explores that journey, sharing lessons learnt, particularly for anyone considering a commitment to volunteering”

First steps

The first short-term workcamps were organised by the International Voluntary Service ( ), a week here, two weeks there, when I was a student aged 18 to 21, until I eventually signed up, after a period of graduate unemployment, for a year fulltime with Community Service Volunteers (now Volunteering Matters ) Hundreds of miles away from family and friends in Northern Ireland and former university of Durham, I moved to Ashford, Kent, to build an adventure playground, run a summer playscheme, supervise young offenders referred by the magistrates courts, and help out in youth clubs. In return I received basic living expenses and was accommodated with a local family in the estate where I worked. I had coffee, bread and jam for breakfast, rode a bicycle and learnt a lot about life in the middle of a council estate with high levels of need.

My subsequent first paid job, in the same community, was as a p/t youth worker, which led to f/t work and a unforeseen career with children and young people began. I had also put down roots and moved permanently to live in that community. I still live 30 miles away from that first project.

I had aspired to be a journalist and was interested in politics, taking a degree in Economics, Politics and Social Administration. However, the volunteering experience, particularly with young people, as it turned out, consolidated my thinking on who I was and what I wanted to do. Many of the values, skills and experiences shaped the career I subsequently developed and thirty-five years on I was appointed the Chief Executive of a charity (the British Youth Council) still working for young people, only this time there were managing me as the Board of BYC are all aged 25 and under. It is a charity that is in the business of empowering young people in the UK to have a say in society, all of whom are volunteers. In 2015, 2016 and 2017 they reached over 950,000 individuals each year in the biggest surveys of teenagers in the UK, for its UK Youth Parliament.( )

Continuing to volunteer

Throughout the 35 years of paid work, I would return from time to time to go on other short-term trips overseas – to Africa, China and Eastern Europe, instead of holidays. I had found that the volunteering experience not only gave me work experience and a foot on the ladder at the start of my career, but I had also found it was a rewarding and renewing experience in its own right, a kind of personal development boost. Consequently I have always encouraged others to volunteer, especially through a structured scheme, and overseas where possible.

My adult gap year – career break.

In, 2017, after a career that was kickstarted by volunteering, I returned to volunteering as an adult, in an adult ‘gap’ year. This is a conscious time-out from the all-consuming demands of being a charity Chief Executive, to not only rest and reflect in a very introspective way, but to spend the time usefully, choosing who and what projects I want to support.  “If you’ve done well, it’s your obligation to spend a good portion of your time sending the elevator back down”. Of course we all know lifts that are ‘out of order’ and you have to use the stairs one at a time, but this reminds us that success often only comes with the support of others (mentors and friends) who give us tips, contacts and encouragement when times are hard. Why? Because, they believe in us.

But one of things I learned from volunteering is that it’s a two way exchange of learning, and I’m keen to use this year to re-evaluate and learn from the contacts I have had with other people, as well as share what I have learnt with them. So its also a bit about getting into the elevator, or holding the door open for others to get in.

So what was it that drew me to volunteering and what is it that I have found so life-affirming about the experience? We all have different reasons for volunteering, from the planned to the accidental, purpose-driven, inspired by others, but once members of the ‘volunteering’ club, many of the lessons and experience can last a lifetime.

My story 

I was educated in Belfast in the seventies at the peak of the ‘troubles’. It was estimated 3,500 died with over 50,000 injured. 1972 was the worst year, when over 450 were killed by bombs, bullets and worse. I was 13 at the time, living in a boarding school in Belfast which we frequently evacuated day and night in response to bomb warnings. The dormitory windows were taped up to prevent any blast scattering glass. Many people were terrorised, divided, numb and distrusting but there also acts of kindness and bravery, many by volunteers. I remember hearing the bombs and feeling the ground shake, the sound of ambulances and fire-engines, seeing the clouds of smoke and burnt out buildings on a weekly basis; being told to stay away from the windows at night to avoid stray bullets as rifles shots and machine-gun fire echoed across the city. I remember one day walking to the school exam centre through picket lines of paramilitary protesters, to do my exams, until one day at the age of eighteen, I chose another route which resulted in discovering the offices of the International Voluntary Service in University Street to sign up as volunteer for my first short-term work-camp.

I was keen to get away, escape that world of terror, but it was also the start of something new, a chance to not only discover new horizons, but to get a new perspective on where I was from. I learnt both and I learnt about myself.

Those early workcamps were also my first experience of working in a team with people from other countries, but also my first experience of meeting and working with other young people from across the sectarian divide in my own country. It was a model that worked well because it recognised that we all shared the fact that we were volunteering for a common goal, and we often had a senses of camaraderie, singing as we worked, and playing games like cricket and football in our spare time, but sometimes in the most challenging of environments. We laughed, cried and worked together.

The work, especially with children and young people, often brought many moments of shared laughter, that would otherwise remained hidden. That felt useful and life affirming in a world that seemed, at the time, to be without hope. Whilst the initial motivation was no doubt to escape, I discovered quickly that I had acquired a new identity of ‘the volunteer’, and that I was measured by the skills and contribution as a team player, no matter how small, because it was as a “volunteer” and so the seeds were planted.

In the later placements, where the work was with people (as well as building things!), there was again a valuing of the relationship, that you were prepared to spend time, for no pay. This often enabled us to access ‘all areas’ of the community, including decision-makers, and be accepted. This was particularly noticeable in communities who were on the margins, both in the UK and overseas, where the contrasts were startling. The shock of contrast, the fragility of life, to war, hunger and disaster, made me re-evaluate what was important – life – and more determined to respond. It motivated me.

Beyond the labels – a personal awareness

I also learned by removing the label and expectations that comes with paid work, your value is then measured by both what you receive, as well as what you give, your ability to absorb, listen change, as well as to help. It’s a trade, a dialogue. When you then “check out” of your placement – you should look back, to consider what you’ve learned.

So What Next?

There is a danger this can be all very self-congratulatory, self-absorbing, and we can lose sight of the fact that we are just one of many, all travellers on one planet, with complicated interactions with our fellow travellers.

The ‘what next’ is to record it, measure it, value it, and apply it into our next steps, to not only marshal those experiences to our benefit, but the benefit of others, remember the experiences and respecting the people we met in our lives, and perhaps, one day return.
My first major project was building an adventure playground, more or less begging and borrowing materials, blagging permissions and persuading others to volunteer. A few years later I joined a team in Uganda to build a bigger adventure playground in a children’s centre, populated with children who were orphaned by AIDS and civil war. Many were HIV positive.

This summer [2017] I accepted an invitation to attend the Commonwealth Youth Ministers Meeting in Uganda, and I took the opportunity to email the children’s centre I had not seen or been in touch with for 25 years. They replied and invited me to come and stay.  They had grown, have a thriving school, academy and skills centre, and the woman who booked my trip and would be my host, was one of the original children who had played on that adventure playground all those years ago.

I returned to a warm welcome, meeting several of the children who were now adults – the driver, the carer, the cook. The wooden playground had long since been eaten by termites, but it was the relationships and memories that had endured. I took with me an old photo album of my first visit to show everyone I met and remember the people and places again. I had come full circle. What ever the journey, its those we share it with, and those we meet, that leave their mark and I would urge everyone embarking on a journey to keep a record of writing and pictures to stimulate memories.

Open the door to those following or send the elevator back down.

So – I m journeying up and down the elevator, sometimes resting on a floor, before re-joining, as those of the next generation step on board, and give us ‘oldies’ a hand. There is an opportunity for alliances and partnerships between the old and young to volunteer together.

What I had started to forget – the most valuable lesson of all – was that volunteering is a two way relationship, not of one giving and the other receiving, but a trade, where in a spirit of respect, we both give and receive, and that this can be part of our lives and a way of life.

In my case it kick started my career, and the story goes on.

This is a very short version of my volunteering story. Everyone’s will be different, with different motivations and outcomes. What I would say to you is tell your story, write it down, record it in pictures and video, be ready for the next opportunity, and open the door for others following on, not just this year – but for the rest of your life.

Suggestions on how to translate your international volunteering experience into work and life.

There are two options – to use your international experience to work overseas, or to use you overseas experience to add value to your life and work in the UK.

1/ Record your experiences online, photos, quotes, hours, skills and impact, but make memories of the lighter moments too, including the friendships.     2/ Re-evaluate and assess your skills set regularly. Update. Ask others to help you do this.
3/ Network you fellow travellers in the UK and around the world – they last a lifetime if you nurture them. Reach out ‘sideways’.
4/ Research future opportunities, go online, email, talk to people, ask questions. Reach out ‘ahead’.
5/ Pass it on your experience, help others, hold open the door. Reach ‘back’. Sometimes it is in giving that you receive. Give a little of yourself and you ll get a lot back.
6/ Finally, remember to cherish, include and feature the things we have in common that are uplifting, especially when faced with adversity. Smiling, laughing, singing and playing together can be the forerunners of working together. Bother require cooperation, teamwork and, sometimes, harmony!

Extra time skills class …more practical advice to help with career development

Whats does someone, with fulltime volunteering experience, communicate (and ought to communicate) to me when they apply for a job, or are up for promotion? What are your key messages to a potential employer or decision maker? That….

1. You have translated passion to action, capacity to commit, potential staying power and dedication. You probably won’t walk away when the going gets tough. So are you passionate about this opportunity too?
2. You are proactive. You not only dreamed, you thought it through, decided and acted, giving of yourself. So what ideas have you got to rise to the next challenge here?
3. You were prepared to go into something unknown, to take a risk to learn about yourself. I m thinking that this will help you when starting a new job for me.
4. You were a Leader and/or Team player. Did you try both? (giving you insights how to both follow and lead by appreciating the role of the other)
5. You helped to making a difference, and understand the difference between process and impact. Try finishing the sentence : “As a result of what we did/I did , the outcome and impact was … [insert] …..and this would not have happened otherwise”
6. You might have overcome adversity. What were the challenges of the new environment (lack of resources, time, factors beyond your control. How was this planned for? Can you have a plan B ready? Are you a contingency thinker?
7. You were a problem solver, adapter, and thought on your feet. I wonder if you can illustrate with examples.
8. How many hours did you spend working, or training. (just checking it wasn’t a holiday as many employers without experience of volunteering might think this!) Have your recorded it, got the certificate? Proof?                                                                                            9. Did you fundraise, or introduce ideas that save money? Most employers love this!
How much? What was your idea – do you have proof – a letter?                                             10. You have good communication and negotiation skills? How did you deal with the language, get the job done, coordinate those resources? Examples?

Communication of all of the above is the only was to get across who you are to further your career. So practice communication – writing, video, Q&A with the friends, and back it up with evidence – possibly gathered on a public website, your window, your portfolio. This tells me that you are self-aware, if you have proof, and how you’ve balanced talking about yourself accurately, clearly, but humbly, perhaps through the words of others: quotes, letters and references, to back it up.

Hope this helps and don’t forget to network. Dont just keep in contact with your fellow travellers but reach out to those ahead of you making new contacts. Finally DONT forget those following on – reach back and give the next generation a helping hand.


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