Volunteering is much more than a Saturday job at the charity shop, writes Douglas Blane. A new scheme allows young people to help others while helping themselves
A young man risking his life in the high mountains to rescue an injured climber from a narrow ledge does not seem to have much in common with the nice old lady who pops your purchase in a bag and gives you a smile in the local charity shop. But both are volunteers, offering their time, energy and talents to others for no financial reward.
Scotland has a healthy tradition and a high rate of volunteering, as well as more than 50 volunteer centres and a national body - Volunteer Development Scotland - that promotes, supports and develops volunteering.
What it lacked until recently was a focus on the young and disadvantaged, who "face formidable barriers to volunteering", according to Scottish Executive research, and a systematic way of matching the supply of potential volunteers to a constantly growing and diverse demand.
ProjectScotland was set up to remedy this. "It is a way of changing young people's perceptions about volunteering," says marketing director Don Roberts. "We work with placement providers and volunteers, and we support young people to volunteer full-time for up to a year."
Launched by the Executive in May, ProjectScotland connects 16 to 25-year-olds with volunteering opportunities in fields that appeal to them - youth work, education, sports, arts, the environment. It pays a subsistence allowance of pound;55 a week plus travel expenses.
"We're getting away from the old-fashioned idea of volunteering as just administration or helping in a charity shop," says Mr Roberts. "Young people tell us they want team-based activities, and regular support and supervision. They want to be doing something where they can see real, direct benefits to the community."
The right kind brings gains to the volunteers, in terms of experience, self-confidence and skills, as well as to the recipients of their efforts.
So a key objective of ProjectScotland, identified in the Executive's Volunteering Strategy, is to target the "opportunity gap" in volunteering, bringing these benefits to a much wider range of people.
This is already beginning to happen, says Mr Roberts: "We are getting applications from school-leavers unsure of what they want to do and from people leaving higher or further education and looking for experience in a particular area before starting a career.
"But we're also getting applications from young people who are not in education or employment - and that's a particular area we're interested in.
We give them an opportunity they wouldn't otherwise get, to pursue something that interests them."
There has been criticism of the amount of taxpayers' money being invested in ProjectScotland - pound;1.9 million at start-up and pound;3.5 million annually for two years. But "changing the face of volunteering for young people" is an ambitious aim that will not be achieved without significant investment, says Mr Roberts. "In response to our advertising and website, we have, since our launch, had 4,500 enquiries from potential volunteers and 500 completed applications, which is encouraging.
"We now have 50 different organisations working with us to provide placements - the Prince's Trust, the Red Cross, Cornerstone, Capability Scotland, the Iona Community, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Festival Fringe and a host of local organisations."
Having experienced the benefits of volunteering early in their adult lives, the target of 1,000 volunteers a year who pass through ProjectScotland will, says Mr Roberts, play a key role in the Volunteering Strategy's objective of "embedding a robust culture of volunteering in Scotland. We have high ambitions and we have made a good start. We have Executive funding as well as commitments from the private sector, and we hope and expect that to continue beyond the three years based on the success we demonstrate. In the long-term, we expect ProjectScotland to become a sustainable, major part of the fabric of voluntering in Scotland."
'Volunteering Strategy', published by the Scottish Executive, 2004; www.projectscotland.org
Shona Macdonald, 23, from Kennoway, Fife. National Trust for Scotland
"I am living in a bothy in Glencoe with three other long-term volunteers.
It used to be a wool store, with a wood-burner, hot and cold water, electricity, everything you need. It's basic but nice - not too different from student accommodation.
"I have a master's degree in environmental biology, but lack of experience was making jobs hard to find. As a volunteer education ranger, every day is different. I help with children's activities in the visitor centre. There are guided walks and 4x4 safaris. There is orienteering and pond-dipping with primary and secondary schoolchildren and students. I do research into the education market. I go into schools and give talks.
"ProjectScotland provides any training we think we need and expenses for protective clothing. Now I'm on a four-day first aid course funded by them.
"I had this volunteering place organised before ProjectScotland came along, but when this ends in October, I'll ask them to find me another place.
"I've been on a few ProjectScotland events where I've met up with other volunteers. I helped out at the G8 summit at Prestwick Airport, looking after groups of children standing at the end of the red carpet to welcome leaders and shake their hands. Getting that close to those powerful people was surreal. George Bush was the friendliest - he came right into the crowd, talked to the children and thanked every one of them.
"I love working outdoors and it's a great team at Glencoe. The best part is getting hands-on experience using what I studied at university.
Klaire Connor, 20, from Tillicoultry. LGBT Youth
"When I left school I got a job doing youth work with the local council. I enjoyed it but I was bored at night so I started doing two evenings a week in Edinburgh with LGBT Youth. We work with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people across Scotland to provide support and help get their voices heard. There are around 100,000 LGBT young people in Scotland, but issues such as homophobic bullying in schools or inequalities at work are rarely discussed.
"One of the first things we put on was a volunteer-led peer education event on LGBT health issues. It was a big success. In my eight months as a volunteer, I did loads of learning about young folk.
"I had never volunteered before, so I expected to be licking envelopes and posting letters. But when I got into it, I discovered it could be fun and exciting. It also led to me getting a full-time job - network development manager - with LGBT Youth, which meant I couldn't volunteer with them. But I'd got the bug, so I volunteer for a history project in the evenings and I'm on the board of directors of the LGBT Health and Wellbeing Centre, which is voluntary.
"I have four people working for me who have come through ProjectScotland.
It has given them opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have had. I never thought volunteering was a young person's thing. Now I know it can be whatever you make it."
Chris Chamberlain, 21, from Portsmouth. Iona Community Project
"I got my first sight of Iona from the bus on Mull, when it went over a hill and I could see the highest point of the island and the top of the abbey. Then the rest of Iona, the little village and the beaches, came into view. It was beautiful. I was a city boy, so I wasn't sure how I would get on. I found the first couple of weeks hard, but after I let down my walls a bit, it got easier. In the end I loved it.
"I was working in the MacLeod Centre, where people go for a retreat, and staying in the staff accommodation next to the beach. It was really nice.
It's based on Christianity, but if you're not religious it doesn't make any difference - they accept you for who you are.
"I got the placing through the Jacobs Project, which is a voluntary organisation for people who have offended. They got me into the Rank Foundation which placed me on Iona. When that came to an end I wanted to do a degree in youth work, but we couldn't get funding because I'd been in trouble. That's when we made contact with ProjectScotland.
"It meant I could carry on with the Iona Community in their Glasgow offices. I'm now planning to do an apprenticeship while studying for a distance learning degree in youth work. Without the security ProjectScotland gave me, I'd probably have had to give up on youth work and find some unskilled job to pay the bills.
"I go into schools now to give workshops and talks about how you can turn your life around. I had a lot of training as a volunteer, in child protection, storytelling and group-work.
"I'm settled in Glasgow, but I go to Iona every chance I get."