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Volunteer boom in bust economy

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McKenna, centre, says volunteering helps people build self-esteem and learn skills

McKenna, centre, says volunteering helps people build self-esteem and learn skills


At the height of the economic boom, Bertie Ahern, the former taoiseach, lamented that Irish society had become so “selfish and materialistic” it had lost its community spirit. Three years and one recession later, the number of people willing to work for free is rising at a rate of more than 1,000 a month.

Educated professionals who have found themselves on the dole for the first time are leading a surge in the number of people signing up for volunteer work, and Volunteer Centres Ireland (VCI) predicts the numbers this year will break previous records.

The agency, which co-ordinates volunteering organisations and matches people to available positions, said 7,545 people registered with it in 2008, double the previous year’s figure. The number is predicted to grow this year to 12,000.

Only 3,000 of last year’s applicants have been given an opportunity to actually get involved in organisations such as charities or local sporting clubs, but Yvonne McKenna, the VCI’s chief executive, said it was trying to speed up this process as there are currently 14,000 places to fill. Candidates must be matched with suitable opportunities and have to be vetted by gardai for certain roles.

“People were volunteering during the Celtic tiger, but they had less time to give,” McKenna said. “Now, there are plenty of people out of work, with time on their hands, and some of them volunteer full time. This is especially common in sport, with some people training teams for up to 70 hours a week.”

She said that volunteering provides people affected by the recession a chance to stay busy, maintain self-esteem, discover new abilities and even meet people who could help them find new employment. “Losing a job can have a huge impact on your confidence. Volunteering enables you to find out what other skills you have and develop them, so the benefits are enormous.”

Previously well-paid public relations officers, website designers and tradesmen are now doing the same job for free because they can continue to gain experience, and future employers won’t see a gap in their CV.

“We always had a good influx of volunteers but we’ve noticed an increase particularly of skilled volunteers,” said Roughan McNamara, the communications manager for Focus Ireland, which helps the homeless.

Andrej Chodyko, 29, left Czestochowa, southern Poland, in 2005 to search for work in Ireland, and has been honing his network engineering skills by managing 20 computers for Suas Educational Development, a Dublin-based fundraising organisation for Indian and Kenyan schools.

Chodyko, who had never been able to find paid IT work in Ireland, lost his job as a car valet last year. “When I came to Ireland, my English wasn’t good enough for an IT job, so I worked as a plumber, and in warehouses,” said Chodyko. “A friend told me about volunteering and I contacted one of the VCI centres. I’m learning a lot from managing this network at Suas and I hope this experience will help me get a paid position.”