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03 June 2014

Tuesday 3 June

On the 30th anniversary of National Volunteer’s Week, our Beyoncé-loving Fundraising and Development Officer, Eloise Waldon-Day, writes about her surprising (even for her) transition from banking to youth workhttp://volunteersweek.org/

Looking back, it was a combination of personal laziness, fear and vanity which led me to accept a graduate job in a major bank. Actually, I think I even knew that at the time – I stood once on Tower Bridge after moving to London, gazing at the grey towers of Canary Wharf emerging from the mist ahead and feeling a rising sense of panic. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a stimulating and exciting place to work, and whatever you think of our current capitalist system, the vitriol directed at individual bankers (mostly genuinely awesome and kind people) is both unfair and misplaced. But I was dimly aware that for me, there was something missing. Being embarrassingly easy to read at the best of times meant that pretty soon everyone else knew that too. Cue several unhappy months.

Every morning, at 5.30am when trudging in the dark to Bermondsey tube, looking uneasily over my shoulder – and again every evening, coming home in heels with bleeding feet, aching calves and a disheartened, dissatisfied spirit – I would pass a tall building with a colourful climbing wall up the side. I freaking love climbing. After one particularly boring day spent agonising yet again over my life choices while the price of gold plummeted still further, I decided to go find out who owned the climbing wall – such a break from routine that it almost felt rebellious.  It belonged to Salmon Youth Club, one of London’s best equipped and largest youth clubs.


Stepping in the door was a disorientating experience – there were screaming children running everywhere, and to be honest, at the time I wasn’t even sure if I liked children. It was also (being a youth club) a bit muckier than a bank’s sterile vastness, and I felt oddly squeamish, rigid as a society hostess in my heels amongst the chaos. But it took all of 5 minutes for that to melt away. The youth workers were welcoming and brilliant, the facilities were frankly enough to make me jealous of 11 year olds, and I offered to volunteer there. It was probably the best I’d felt about myself in months, and certainly the most comfortable. Kicking off your heels and pretending to be a kid again (albeit a responsible one, with genuine care and concern for the young people you get to know) tapped into other experiences in my adult life where I felt the happiest – coaching sport or running outreach programmes at university .

Knowing the young people is a privilege, some of the girls in particular. I started out thinking perhaps I’d provide something different as a role model for them, but I pretty quickly realised they didn’t need me for that – they’re bright, ambitious and surprisingly sensible on their own. I still feel honoured when girls seek me out to talk to, and try my best to just be there for them, letting them know they can talk about whatever feelings, worries or thoughts they’re having, and that I won’t either judge or direct them. Come on, it’s not like I have any more idea than they do.

Leaving banking after that was still scary, but certainly made more sense. I volunteered at Salmon while I tried to find my feet as a newly unemployed young person, and I now volunteer with Rape Crisis UK. It is an emotionally demanding experience but one I’m fantastically proud of. I began here working at London Youth some months later. Volunteering was a bit of a revelation – like discovering a whole other side of my personality or welcoming in another Eloise (Eloise 2.0) who is allowed to be warmer, kinder and more empathetic. I’m probably not alone in undergoing such a character transformation, but it still feels like a monsoon in India following months of arid heat – somehow still blissful and relaxing.

Economic theory, and common sense, says there’s no such thing as true altruism – every action we undertake is self-interested to some degree. Perhaps walking into a youth club and having a horde of young people charging to hug me and shouting my name is as much directed by self-interest as participating in global markets – I’m still secretly delighted every time, as much as I pretend to be exasperated. Maybe it could even be said that the beneficial effect has been far greater for me than for the young people, who have a whole host of kind and willing volunteers at Salmon Youth Centre ready to support them.

But whatever I do next, volunteering at both Salmon and Rape Crisis has provided me with so much in the last twelve months. I feel like I’ve experienced the terror of the darkest and most brutal human experiences as well as the simplest forms of joy and self-discovery, and I’m proud of sharing that time that I can offer. Volunteering doesn’t feel like something I would ever stop doing.

And if you have time, on the 30th anniversary of National Volunteer’s Week, you should totally do the same.

http://volunteersweek.org/