Saturday 4 August 2012

Volunteer Spirit

As far as I can tell there are three elements which make volunteers and volunteering so special: the first, is the generosity itself; the second, is the spirit of the giving; and the third, is the quality of the individual as a contributing and capable member of society.  In the majority, these factors combine to create a most valuable collaborator, ready to perform all manner of tasks and roles with a first class attitude. 

Take the Olympics for instance: the volunteers, otherwise known as ‘games makers’, are second in importance only to the athletes.  Individually and collectively they are making the wheels turn and adding not only immense practical value but the je ne sais qois we’ll all remember from 2012.  Anyone who experienced the Sydney Olympics will understand what I mean.  Already Londoners are talking about a different kind of friendliness evident on the streets, the warmth (literal and metaphorical) which is seeping under people’s skins and opening them up, such that Londoners suddenly seem less reserved, less suspicious.  No longer am I the only person talking to others on the train unprompted.  People are smiling, nodding, chatting, and for these precious days we feel less like strangers and more a part of something bigger than ourselves. 

Funny that competitive sport brings that on – when it’s the reserve, usually, of spiritual reflection – but on that count churches adjacent to most venues are also opening their doors to visitors for free cups of tea and the use of amenities (something highly appreciated when thousands of people converge in one location).   Father Nicholas introduced himself to me on my first day of work near the Blackheath Live Site, offering similar welcomes, and his delightful neighbours, Gail and Peter, stored a box in their garden of the coveted ‘pink fingers’ over several nights so I didn’t have to lug a large box up and down the hill. 

The Police are out on horseback and bicycle, cracking jokes and ready to help.  The Armed Forces are not only well dressed and easy on the eye, but also poised to help with whatever comes up.  Yesterday, for example, a Marine by the name of Stu Hamilton resolved an access issue for about one hundred guests in my zone with some quick lateral thinking and a big smile.  And all this rubs off on the spectators, who invariably greet and thank the volunteers (and the lucky paid staff amongst us) as they pass through The Last Mile in the thousands to get back on the trains and buses which are also operating with wonderful smoothness.   When you call out “did you have a great day?” they reply with confident cheers, and only a few odd sods have teased me about Australia’s uncharacteristically subdued medal tally.  Even on the busiest cross-country day when 50,000 spectators left Greenwich Park simultaneously, I stood on a raised section of pavement to announce in my loudest theatrical voice “no delays at Blackheath Station ladies and gentleman… TfL are doing a great job”… and they laughed and whooped… not one scoff amongst them! 

But back to the volunteers: you’d think it'd be their skill and professional experience which make them so valuable… and though that's palpable, it is first and foremost their attitude which is magical.  Many are highly skilled: I’ve had doctors, teachers and senior managers in my team.  Many live in other parts of the country and have negotiated to take leave from their jobs (and families) to come to London.  Many are staying with friends and family, just as many others are camping on the city’s outskirts… ready to get up early in the morning or stand on their feet for shifts of up to ten and twelve hours.  Yet still they wave those ‘pink fingers’, give directions and engage with the crowd, making anyone who is interested in the Olympics, in this once-in-a-lifetime-London experience, cheered and proud to come across them.  Sometimes I get to mix and learn about the volunteers while on duty.  Other times I meet them in the pub after work where the least I can do is buy them a pint (well, I’ve got Irish heritage and can’t possibly let them drink alone).  But I never fail to be impressed by their character, enthusiasm and the complex arrangements they’ve had to make so as to be available for London over this period. 

So, I’m wondering: what does this evidence of Olympic spirit, and the volunteers in particular, tell us about humanity?  I think it shows that people will rise to the occasion, give of themselves, tap good humour, look to give (rather than receive), when they are given half a chance to express optimism – to express the best of themselves.  I also think it shows the supremacy of positivity and hope over negativity and suspicion, when we raise our sights above the horizon to embrace the big picture.  Call me idealistic or romantic, but the evidence is there.  And in the wake of a difficult financial climate across Europe, not to mention bad weather in Britain prior to this delectably-sunny aspect turned on for the Games, it is truly heartening to experience. 

I only wish I always got to work with people who are so universally positive!  But I suppose it’s the lack of $ and ego in the equation which keeps it pure. 

Just for the record I would never say volunteers don’t deserve to be paid. In fact the opposite is true if you evaluate the general quality of their contribution.  Where would charities and arts organisations be without such generosity?  And I particularly think carers need to have financial relief and safety nets so as to take a break when they need it.  

But there is something unique and socially important about the extensive volunteering which takes place across many aspects of our ‘commonwealth’, for in many ways it’s a measure of the social health, generosity and vibrancy of a nation. 

And if that is the case, even anecdotally, then I suppose I must strive to be gracious about the fact that Britain and New Zealand are currently sitting higher than Australia on the gold medal tally.  It’s a struggle, but I’m channelling the volunteer spirit…

       (In my next blog I hope to introduce you to some specific volunteers,
          for theirs is a story which warrants a hearing.)