On June 25th I arrived at the Irish Museum of Modern Art for a 4-hour shift as an invigilator, and I stayed for eight hours. This was for a video installation as part of Two Suitcases (a project from Helium Arts and Health and CanTeen Ireland). The project sits somewhere beautifully between the realms of arts and youth engagement, which means it’s right up my alley. I’ve met a few people in my life who have chastised me for giving my time freely to things like this. I might as well explain why I do.
I was a quiet kid. I had more imaginary friends than I could count, and I didn’t socialise well until I was maybe ten or eleven years old. I spent secondary school struggling with peer pressure and feeling like an outsider in a new town. In 4th year, I had a truly inspirational theatre/poetry recital mentor, and I finally started to break out of my shell. In 2009, a family member moved to Kilkenny City invited me to stay for a week or two so that I could volunteer for Kilkenny Arts Festival. I was sixteen, and I had no idea how much my life was about to change.
The first year there, I was asked what my interests were and I said I liked photography. Hey presto, I was helping the festival photographer Colm Hogan to carry gear and cover the events. I am uncertain how much of a help I actually was – I’m actually pretty sure I was a hindrance – but I loved it. On top of that, I asked if I could do at least one event every day, and I tried to go see as many other events as I could. My teenage eyes were opened to theatre, poetry, dance, music, visual art, street performance and, above all, the incredible power of teamwork.
For the next few years, I aimed to work at least two events per day of each festival period and helping out in the office when I could. I delivered festival brochures, punched holes in volunteer name tags, brought people to their seats, gave directions in a city I had quickly grown to know and love, and sat for hours on end in the castle to guard over a sound installation with automatically programmed record players. I was treated like an adult, by the most fantastic and capable team, and truly felt respected as a worthwhile cog in the machine.
In the meantime, I also managed the band that won the Irish Youth Music Awards, worked with the Dunamaise Arts Centre and photographed Michael D, photographed a weekend-long festival, and volunteered with the Darklight Film Festival in my first year as a student in Dublin. I worked at the Cat Laugh’s Comedy Festival. I worked at Dublin Biennial 2014. I worked with GAZE Film Festival. I met the phenomenal team behind Once in Dublin and had the dream opportunity of interning with them last summer (paid – achieved solely because of my extensive volunteer experience). During my time in college, I filled my spare time with extra-curriculars, working with UCD’s LGBTQ+ Society and spending two phenomenal years with the visual arts society, UCD Drawsoc (incidentally, how I learned about Helium Arts and Health in the first place).
In 2013, the team in Kilkenny trusted me enough to put me in charge of other volunteers, and offered me a position as Venue Manager with Architects of Air. I was one of the youngest to be given this responsibility, I think largely because I’d proven in the previous four years that I was unhinged enough to work 12-hour days, and that I was trust-worthy. I took on the challenge with immense pride and buckets of nerves, and did my best to encourage the volunteers working with me.
I threw myself into everything I did and, every single time, I learned something new. There is no end to what you can figure out if you give yourself a chance and let somebody else give you a chance too. Volunteering is about so much more than filling out your CV. It’s about finding something that you love and helping to make it happen – whether that’s a comic convention, science conference, film festival, theatre production, pride parade or otherwise. When people are interested in something, they will congregate to celebrate it, and that celebration will invariably need a team to organise it.
So much of arts and cultural programming in this country would be completely impossible without the work of volunteers. The community understands the hard graft required to carry out such work, and of all the things I’ve done I have never experienced as much gratitude as I have when working with arts organisations. That’s my area, but I’m certain that other spheres work the same way.
Galway International Arts Festival are currently looking for volunteers, as are Kilkenny Arts Festival. You can also keep an eye out on volunteering opportunities all over the country if you sign up to www.volunteer.ie.
If you’re volunteering for something purely to fill up your CV, make sure you make the most of it. At the end of the day, it’s your time that you’re giving away for free; don’t waste it for the sake of an extra line of text on an application.
Ask if you can help. See if there’s an extra step you can take to make somebody else have a better day (they’ll be more willing to do the same for you). Smile, make small talk, learn about the people and organisations you work with. Listen to people’s stories.
You will be the better for it. You will feel a greater sense of accomplishment for your actions.
There is no end to what you can do. You might surprise yourself.
Helium Arts and Health (CHY19236) gives a creative voice to children and teenagers in hospitals and healthcare settings through participatory arts programmes. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about volunteering, and you can donate directly to them by clicking here.
CanTeen Ireland is a nationwide support group for young people between the ages of 12 and 25 years who have or have had cancer. You can find out about volunteering with CanTeen and/or donating by clicking here.