The challenges and rewards of volunteering

After I retired from paid employment I thought it would be a good idea to do some voluntary work. Having spent some years with other organisations I found my niche with Auckland SPCA, a charity which protects thousands of animals from neglect and abuse each year, and offers a variety of roles for volunteers.

The most important reason for volunteering is the altruistic one of contributing towards a worthwhile cause. Personal satisfaction comes secondary, however there are also benefits for the volunteers themselves: an enhanced sense of purpose, more social contact, taking more exercise and learning new skills can bring improvements in both mental and physical health.

Volunteering does not always work out well, and unsuitable people can be a hindrance rather than a help to the organisation they are meant to be serving. Those who have taken it up as occupational therapy for themselves can tend skimp on the more boring or arduous duties which are usually involved. Conversely, those who are carrying on from a sense of duty but not enjoying it can grow to feel martyred and burnt out. Retired people who volunteer for work related to their former profession can feel frustrated in a subordinate role where their knowledge and skills cannot be used to the full, whereas those who choose a new field can be daunted by the adaptation required.

Nowadays most organisations require aspiring volunteers to provide references, agree to police checks, attend training courses, and observe health and safety regulations. Becoming a volunteer is a formal process and a serious commitment, and helping out on a casual basis is seldom an option.

Based on my own experience in different settings, my advice to aspiring volunteers would be: Choose a cause that is truly important to  you, keep the big picture in mind if the day to day work seems tedious, and persevere long enough to understand how the organisation works and get to know some of its employees. I currently volunteer once a week in the fostering department of the Animal Village, and also take some part in fundraising activities, having previously worked in the cat ward, adoption cattery and on reception. Rather than cuddling sweet kittens, volunteers in the feline areas are mainly occupied in such tasks as setting up cages, cleaning bowls and litter trays, and replenishing stocks of food; these may be mundane, but are essential to the over-arching aim of saving animals’ lives. The paid staff members value and respect the volunteers, and have been tolerant of my slowness in learning practical procedures and my clumsiness in letting a cat escape from her cage. They remain cheerful and friendly despite having to deal with some heartbreaking cases of animals in distress. A high proportion of these animals can be successfully rehabilitated and rehomed and one of them, my own cat Magic, will be featured in my next post.

Cat Ward

Today I drove out to Mangere for my regular volunteer session on the Cat Ward at Auckland SPCA. It’s early summer in New Zealand and the kitten season is in full swing. Pregnant mothers, mothers with newborn kittens, and litters of orphan kittens are continually being admitted. Of course there are older cats there too. Some have been picked up as strays, some surrendered by owners who can no longer care for them, and others are victims of cruelty or neglect.

All the cats are beautiful, with their different sizes and colours and personalities. A few are highly vocal, constantly clamouring for attention, freedom or food. Some are labelled ‘Timid’ and hide away under their blankets. Many others just sit still, waiting with patient dignity for what will happen next.

Volunteers work alongside the veterinary nurses, helping with practical tasks such as cleaning cages, feeding bowls and litter trays; serving meals; stocking up supplies of rags and newspaper; taking rubbish out; and sometimes spending time with sick puppies in the room next door.

We are not encouraged to have too much physical contact with the cats, because of the risk of spreading infection, nor do we know where they came from or where they will go. It’s probably better not to get too involved with them individually, because not all will be lucky enough to live happy ever after, though a good number will eventually be adopted by one of the many visitors who come to the Animal Village.

There are always vacancies for new volunteers, to do a variety of jobs: direct care of cats, dogs or rabbits, reception, administration, laundry, driving, fostering and fund-raising. Maybe this Christmas season you might consider helping at your own local animal rescue centre, giving them some money, becoming a foster parent or offering a dog or cat a ‘forever home’.