At this year’s Volunteer Awards, Student Volunteer Ambassador Ed Unwin (BSc in International Relations, 2022) spoke about being being proud of his volunteering. Ed won the LSE Volunteer of the Year award in 2021.
I want to talk about being proud when volunteering.
I think its something people who volunteer or work in charity can struggle with. I know because I never used to be proud of my volunteering. It seems strange now, but for a long time I didn’t think I had anything to be proud of from my volunteering.
To illustrate this, I want to talk about my first ever volunteering experience. Many years ago!
When I was 15, I started volunteering as a visually impaired runner guide for Park Run. Running 5K every Saturday at 9am with a Runner called James.
James went from not running at all since losing his sight, to running every weekend. He would hold onto my forearm, and I would shout out sharp turnings whilst we ran at break neck speed around a local park filled with obstacles like ponds, puddles and dogs off leads. I thought it was incredible what James was doing, and so you can appreciate how impressive it was: I’d like you to imagine having to run as fast as you can in a public space, surrounded by hundreds of other people running, without being able to see at all. Yet, each week he would get faster and more confident.
Eventually, he invited me to be his guide runner for his first ever 10k race. It also happened to be my first 10K too. I was so immensely proud for James, and it was a perfect way to celebrate two years of running together.
This helped me realise that part of being proud isn’t about what you’ve achieved compared to others, but what you’ve achieved compared to yourself. Some people run 10K on a regular basis, but that doesn’t change what James achieved by taking that step.
However, this is often more intuitive to apply to others than yourself. One day I told James the kind of things I’ve been saying to you today, that I was so proud of what he’d achieved. It came as quite a surprise to me when James told me I should be proud of myself too. What did I have to be proud of?
He said to me: Ed you’re 17 years old, and yet you’ve gotten up at 7:00 every Saturday just to come and run around a park in the rain with me for two years, you don’t have to do this and here you are!
As young people, I think it can be so easy to not let yourself be proud of what you’ve achieved. Especially with social media, you can always find someone doing something more impressive than you and end up undermining how far you’ve come.
I hadn’t let myself be proud of the fact I had come so far through volunteering. As someone with dyspraxia, I tended to avoid physical activity because of the difficulty it caused me. In school PE made me so anxious that I would have nightmares about playing football.
Running with James changed this. I went from doing almost nothing outside of school to getting out the house every Saturday morning. Although I got rained on more in those two years than in the rest of my life combined, it taught me that exercise could be fun, and that other people don’t judge you, but cheer you on.
I had been too busy being amazed by what James had accomplished. Instead, I came to be proud of our joint accomplishment as a team, literally running in step to the same goals, trusting, understanding each other and working much better together as a result.
Skipping forward 3 years, I had the shock of winning LSE’s volunteer of the year award. I found myself thinking that I didn’t deserve to win the award, I didn’t deserve to be celebrated, I didn’t deserve to be proud.
I had all sorts of reasons for this that made lots of sense to me internally, but then I thought back to that first ever volunteering experience with James. And realised I was wrong.
So, let me try and convince all you nominees. You should all be proud of yourselves for whatever has brought you here.
Just like me I’m certain that you can think of a whole host of reasons for putting yourself down, but you’re wrong too.
No matter what other people have done, no matter your reasons for volunteering, today we all deserve to celebrate ourselves. Be proud!