Picture courtesy of parkrun St Albans
As a family we love parkrun – a free, weekly, timed 5k run, managed by a network of volunteers. All four of us run most weeks and both of my kids benefit immensely. Not only does it help their fitness levels - at 6 years old my daughter completes her 5K in 29 minutes, well ahead of me – but it also boosts her confidence as she notches up new personal bests.
An additional benefit of being part of the parkrun community is that they have the opportunity to give back and volunteer to help run the event. Occasionally by helping to put finishing tokens in order, sometimes acting as tail runners - ensuring that no-one is left behind - or as marshals (standing on the side and saying something encouraging to the runners or loudly ‘keep to the left’). Most of the time they probably mess about. But it is a little bit of responsibility, learning how to contribute and being recognized by their local community for their efforts.
Whilst this blog is not about parkrun per se but about the benefits of volunteering from an early age, I would like to take an opportunity to say that parkrun is an incredible organization. In my view, in its 18 years, it must have done more for the NHS than any recent government policy. It is free, it is regular and it is inclusive. Doctors are known to prescribe parkrun for all sorts of reasons from improving fitness to helping with depression. It is run by volunteers and – this is my favorite bit - it is one of the few visible ways where young kids can see their parents volunteering and volunteer alongside them.
The other charities I could think of that achieve that kind of family volunteering ethos in the UK are The Woodland Trust and The Wildlife Trusts. And I credit our experience of planting trees in Heartwood Forest through The Woodland Trust with the inception of the idea of MyPocketSkill, the platform I co-founded, which connects 13-19 years old with local paid and volunteering tasks – currently operating in Brighton and St Albans.
So why should you volunteer and when is the best age to start? Both the volunteers and the groups they are helping see the positive effects of volunteering. The health benefits for volunteers are widely acknowledged - the NHS 5-year plan even identifies a need to encourage community volunteering. It can also build confidence, provide new skills and aid social integration. For example, #iwillcampaign, which aims to increase youth participation in social action, reports that 67% of employers surveyed by Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development say that entry-level candidates who volunteer demonstrate better employability skills. Skills such as teamwork, communication and community understanding. That is significant! At MyPocketSkill we have heard a number of great stories from our young members whose volunteering has helped them acquire a particular skill or area of expertise. Many of these have led to other positive things.
And yet despite this overwhelmingly positive impact, the proportion of the population choosing to volunteer has stayed broadly the same in the last 15 years, according to Community Life Survey – at 39% of men and 42% of women. There are more young people volunteering, with age category of 16-24 at 51%.
So what makes people more likely to volunteer? According to #iwillcampaign - starting young increases the likelihood of staying involved. The survey they ran found that committed volunteers, those who are consistently involved, started before they were 11 years old. Another important factor is making volunteering part of the routine - another nod to parkrun, who are there every Saturday morning sunshine or rain. And finally, making it meaningful. There are many ways to do that. With my own kids I make sure they get the full picture. So if they are fundraising for a local school, they meet beneficiaries. If they hand out leaflets helping the political party we support, they get the full context on the issues involved.
To conclude, as a parent I see huge benefits from getting my kids involved in volunteering. I see them happily doing things that ordinarily they would complain about because they see other people doing it. They come across role models by interacting with people, who are accustomed to giving back. So get your kids volunteering today. And if you are at a loose end on where to start – start with parkrun – it is easy - and make volunteering your norm.
My daughter receiving her ' most improved Junior runner' from the team of volunteers. Picture courtesy of parkrun St Albans
Zara Ransley is a co-founder of MyPocketSkill, a digital start-up, which connects young people, aged 13-19, with paid and volunteering opportunities.