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Passionate, kind… and emotionally spent: The volunteers dedicated to helping others


‘I do worry about reaching burnout. Sometimes I feel like I am approaching it,’ admits Sol Escobar, a 40-year-old educational specialist.

For two years, until March 2020, Sol had travelled from her home in Cambridge to volunteer at refugee camps in Calais every six weeks. She’d spend the weekend there, helping out in the community kitchen and distributing clothes from an onsite warehouse. 

Describing life as a volunteer, in one breath Sol recalls, ‘The coldest winter, around minus three… I just remember being overwhelmed by the thought that children were sleeping outside in this.’

In the next, you can hear the joy in her voice as she talks about the amazing camaraderie shared as volunteers prepared meals to feed the hundreds of starving people scattered around the camp. 

‘You might be washing up or cutting carrots and there’ll be loud music blaring, so everyone’s singing and dancing,’ she explains. ‘Then we’d go out to distribute the food and get a chance to chat with the refugees.

‘Even though the context of what we were doing was so tragic, it still felt very positive.’

With nearly a quarter of people from the UK aged 16 and above currently volunteering in some way at least once a month, there’s little doubt it’s a rewarding experience. However, it’s not without issues. 

For those working in hostile situations it can be undeniably dangerous, while for many, extreme altruism can also be emotionally and physically draining. 

‘There’s no question volunteers are essential and it can be really gratifying, but people do need to realise it isn’t always a nice and fluffy experience,’ explains therapist Olivia James, who specialises in anxiety and trauma. 

‘For example, anyone who chooses to work with someone who might have had a troubled past, will see and hear things that are really hard to process.

‘Even working in a dog shelter can feel emotionally gruelling, as you’re dealing with abandoned animals. So before you sign up for anything you need to consider the emotional impact and whether you have the time and resources to deal with it.’

Sol (right) went to Calais to help refugees by cooking meals and distributing clothes and sleeping bags (Picture: Sol Escobar)

Talking about how she first got into volunteering at the Calais refugee camps, Sol says that it was being an immigrant herself that inspired her to help others. 

After moving to the UK from Uruguay in 2006 to study, she went on to work at Cambridge University four years ago. There, she spotted an advert for a local charity called Cambridge Convoy Refugee action Group that supports refugee communities in northern France.

Although Sol had tried to prepare herself for what life in the camps would be like, she admits she was still left shaken.

‘Once you’ve seen it you can’t un-see it,’ she says, describing the clusters of scared, hungry and exhausted people scattered throughout abandoned buildings and the forest. ‘It was so grim, with people – often children – having to hide so the police wouldn’t evict them and treat them like animals.

‘I remember sorting sleeping bags and tents in the warehouse and feeling so frozen. I’d seen kids sleeping outside and the extent of the crisis hit me – this was actually happening just a couple of hours away from where we lived.’

Sol says nothing could have prepared her for what she saw at the refugee camps in Calais (Picture: PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP via Getty Images)

As well a putting together a refugee support committee in her workplace, Sol began helping those who had settled locally to her.

‘When I started volunteering in the camps it was very difficult to come back and just live my normal life,’ she admits. ‘I became constantly worried about the people that I had seen and would often travel home in tears.

‘I really felt like I was abandoning people. I was going home to sleep in my comfy bed in my warm house and there was a huge sense of guilt. There were really conflicting emotions.’

Sol says she felt lucky that the charity offered debrief counseling service for people, ‘especially at the beginning when things take more time to process,’ she adds.

‘Now, I think I’ve built up a tolerance and coping mechanisms, as it can be hugely emotionally taxing. Once you know what’s happening, you feel a level of responsibility to do something about it.’

‘When I started volunteering in the camps it was very difficult to come back and just live my normal life,’ says Sol (picture: Sol Escobar)

According to therapist Olivia James, vicarious trauma is something often experienced by those who volunteer in difficult circumstances. 

‘It’s basically trauma by proxy,’ she explains. ‘It may not have happened to you, but hearing about it and seeing the effects can have a huge impact. 

‘It’s something a lot of people who man support lines encounter, especially when dealing with mental health issues or sexual assault. Of course, the training they are given is invaluable, but it’s still very hard to let go of those feelings and can sometimes take hold like PTSD.’

Olivia explains that although many charities offer counselling services for their volunteers, it may not always be enough.

‘Just talking about something sometimes isn’t effective when dealing with trauma, as it can manifest physically as well as emotionally,’ she says. ‘They need much more in depth therapies to deal with that.’

Student Niamh Gallagher has volunteered for a support helpline for the past three years. 

Talking about her first day at the Liverpool Hope Nightline – which is for and run by students – the 22-year-old says she can still recall it ‘as if it was yesterday’.

‘I remember the fear. What if I say the wrong thing? What if the tone of my voice isn’t correct? What if I respond when I’m meant to just listen?’

Niamh is now a director of the Liverpool Hope Nightline after volunteering there three years ago (Picture: Niamh Gallagher)

Since then, Niamh has progressed to being director of the service at her university in Merseyside, and now heads up her own team of volunteers, who until the pandemic would speak to students via phone. Now it’s all done via instant messenger. 

‘The things we get contacted about can really vary,’ she explains. ‘It can be anything from someone being annoyed by a housemate taking their fork to sexual assault or suicidal thoughts.

‘Our job is to listen. We can’t tell them what to do or offer them advice, but we can speak and help them to work out their problems themselves. Obviously if it’s really serious then we can arrange support for them, but only with their consent.’

There’s no doubt that dealing with such issues, especially at such a young age, can be overwhelming, which is why all volunteers at Nightline have lengthy training before they are allowed to start.

‘It involves lots of roleplay of different conversations,’ explains Niamh. ‘Sometimes we’d play the part of the caller, as well as the volunteer, just to get a sense of what it would be like from both perspectives.’

Now a director, Niamh understands just how valuable training can be – not just for the person looking for support, but also those giving it. 

‘We’ve had meetings with the suicide charity Papyrus and the Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre (RASA), so we can learn more,’ she explains.

‘There’s also counselling available and I often check in on my team to see how they are doing, especially if they’ve taken any particular traumatic calls or messages. I always suggest they take time out afterwards, or if they don’t feel they can carry on, they can go home. 

‘There’s never any pressure if someone feels too drained – you can’t pour from an empty cup, after all.’ 

Calls and messages to Nightline can cover anything from finance issues to suicidal thoughts (Picture: Getty Images)

As the helpline is run in the evening until the early hours, Niamh explains that it can take a bit of time to turn off. 

‘Finishing in the dead of night can be a bit strange, as you’re buzzing,’ she says. ‘I always ask that everyone on my team take a little pause before heading home. I also recommend that they don’t do a shift if they have an important day ahead of them, as you’re often left tired and it can be hard to concentrate – especially as you never know what might happen in a call.’

One of the keys to Nightline’s success according to Niamh, who had trained to be a primary teacher but is now taking on a masters in child and adolescent mental health, so she can focus more on supporting children’s wellbeing, is that it is shrouded in confidentiality – from the callers and supporters not offering up their names, to the location where they work being kept secret. 

‘It’s so important that people feel they can speak openly about their problems,’ she explains. ‘It’s one of the reasons Nightline was set up – for students who didn’t want to talk to someone in authority at the university for fear of being judged or having their issue being taken out of their control. As students we understand what it’s really like, and they know that.’

Libby Brewster is a self-confessed serial volunteer. She first started helping others with a bake sale for Blue Peter when she was just nine

‘Volunteering is a bit addictive,’ she laughs. ‘I came from an altruistic family, so it was only natural I would want to do my bit too.’

It was ‘doing her bit’ that saw Libby teaching English and living in a Sri Lankan Buddhist monastery when she was just 18 in 2004. Three years later she went to Malawi, where she worked as an engineer on a water pumping project.

Libby went to Sri Lanka when she was 18 to help teach English (Picture: Libby Brewster)

‘I was working with village elders and women to educate the village on hygienic washing practices,’ she explains. 

‘We focussed less on doing and more on helping coordinate and enable skilled local people, which is what made me realise that perhaps my trip to Sri Lanka hadn’t been the best use of my time and skills.’

Talking about the rise of volunteer tourism, where people might go abroad to help others without thinking about the effect it might have socially, morally and economically, Libby says, ‘While I can’t regret going to Sri Lanka, as it made me who I am, it has made me question what positive impact I had and what is the right way to volunteer.’

More recently Libby has turned her hand to helping people in the UK, especially during the Covid crisis. 

‘I’ve volunteered to pack food, sewed scrubs for the NHS and now I run a ‘Mental Health Mates’ walk in London,’ she explains. 

Over the last year Libby has spent her time sewing scrubs for NHS workers (Picture: Libby Brewster)

‘I’ve realised that there are so many fantastic projects in the UK people can volunteer with while still supporting small organisations abroad who are doing their own great work.’

Libby also explains that the relationship between volunteering and mental health is all about balance. 

She set up a wellbeing self-help business called Adbra, after suffering ill mental health herself.

‘I was so stressed in my job working on frontline logistics for an engineering firm that I suffered terrible chest pains,’ she remembers. ‘I knew I had to give up or would suffer burnout. But the same goes for volunteering. It is a huge responsibility, so you need to make sure you have balance – time for your day-to-day life and your work. 

‘You also have to learn not to feel guilty if you have to stop doing it for a while, too.’

However, Libby admits it’s easier said than done. 

Having started volunteering at nine, Libby (R) says she will always be doing some sort of support work (Pictured: Libby Brewster)

‘I’ll always be doing some sort of volunteering,’ she confesses. ‘I just need to try and do one thing at a time, because at the end of the day, you’ve got to look after yourself.’ 

Now that Sol is no longer able to travel to the camps due to the pandemic, she’s found other ways to support the refugee community. 

‘I created my own non-profit organisation, which offers an online catalogue of donated clothing where women who are refugees or seeking asylum can ‘shop’ for free,’ she explains.

Since launching Give Your Best seven months ago, the organisation now has 55 volunteers working alongside Sol across the UK. 

‘Our team includes women who are themselves refugees or seeking asylum, and each of them have their own amazing story. We have over 450 people registered to shop with us and have received over 4000 items of donated clothing.’

But the success of Sol’s initiative isn’t without stress. 

‘It has really taken me by surprise and I have to make it work alongside my full time job,’ she says, admitting that she’s only been able to set it up because she’s working from home and can be flexible with her hours. 

Now that Sol can no longer go to Calais, she has set up a clothes donation scheme (Picture: Sol Escobar)

‘Sometimes I get overwhelmed that we are looking after over 400 women, but then I have to remind myself that it’s not all on me, I have lots of wonderful people also helping out. 

‘But even when I try to take time away, I find my mind wandering back to it. I just feel so much passion, I don’t think I would ever be able to stop altogether.’

According to Olivia James, there are many reasons people go into volunteering. 

Not only does it make you feel good, it helps us with that feeling of connection,’ she explains. ‘Humans are tribal and by doing things together or for others is hugely collaborative.’

Talking about the more complex reasons, Olivia cites guilt – ‘Guilt that you’re not saving everyone, that you’re letting people down if you can’t or don’t volunteer’ – and also distraction. ‘By focussing on someone else you don’t need to think about things that might not be working in your own life,’ she adds. 

However, for all her concerns about the impact of volunteering, Olivia says there’s no doubt that altruistic behaviour can be very good for our wellbeing.

‘With anxiety on the increase, distraction can actually be a good thing,’ she explains. ‘Often our focus goes inwards and it’s a hard cycle to break. Volunteering gives people the opportunity to put their attention on something or someone else. 

‘The key is making sure you strike the balance so that everyone gets something positive from it,’ adds Olivia. 

‘That’s why it’s so important to create boundaries and know your limits – you’re no good to anyone if you’re not looking after yourself.’



‘I volunteered overseas, but the pandemic made me realise people in the UK need help too’

In the summer of 2017 ‘after a bad break up’, Krishan Parmar decided to volunteer at a school in Haiti. While the freelance fashion stylist admits that he went out with rose tinted glasses, the experience was life changing.

‘It was so daunting being surrounded by so many people in need and seeing such visible poverty,’ he says. ‘I’d had visions of being some sort of superman and saving an entire school of children, giving them a better life, but obviously that wasn’t the reality.’

As well as enduring regular threats of violence during his time there – ‘cars would pull up beside you and the driver would stare and pretend to slit his throat’ – Krishan, 37, admits it was hard to comprehend the huge disparity from his life back home. ‘Families were living without any running water, while children queued for hours just to get a bowl of rice. It was a level of poverty, I don’t think I realised truly existed.’

Krishan volunteered at a school in Haiti and helped set up a library (Picture: Krishan Parmar)

As well as teaching children sport, Krishan also helped set up a library and once home, vowed to carry on fundraising for the charity who had sent him there.

‘I did the marathon and sold hand printed bags to raise money, and always planned to go back and do more,’ he says.

However, Krishan’s plans to return were put on hold due to political instability and violence. 

Then in 2020, as the pandemic took hold, a chance trip to the supermarket made him channel his energy into supporting those affected by poverty in the UK.

‘I saw volunteers asking for food donations and until then I had been so unaware of  the hidden poverty within my own community in southwest London. I’d never heard of the words ‘working poor’,’ he admits. ‘My work had dried up due to lockdown, so I signed up to help straight away. 

‘I had been so unaware of  the hidden poverty within my own community,’ says Krishan (Picture: Krishan Parmar)

‘I have delivered so many food parcels to people with full time jobs but still can’t make ends meet. One guy I spoke to was an ambulance worker. He was doing 12-hour shifts, then going to the supermarket to find the shelves were empty, or that he couldn’t afford a big shop. His kids were homeschooling but didn’t have devices at home to do their school work on. It was awful – this guy was working so hard to help others, yet couldn’t even afford to look after his family.’

Since then, Krishan has volunteered with a nearby organisation called Dons Local Action Group, who have delivered over 2000 laptops to children, more than 150,000 food parcels and over 200 items of furniture to people experiencing furniture poverty. 

‘Whether you’re overseas or in south London, trying to put into words just how much some people struggle is hard,’ says Krishan. 

‘It’s almost like you have to see it to believe it. I think about the children in Haiti and the ambulance worker all the time, and it does take its toll. But saying that, volunteering is absolutely worth doing – I love every second.’


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Volunteers’ Week takes place 1-7 June and highlights the amazing ways people can give back and help others. To get involved click here





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