Volunteering can benefit those who give their time as much as those they help, young Scots are discovering. Raymond Ross reports.
When was the last time you volunteered for anything? asks the campaign poster. Volunteer Development Scotland is recruiting for a Millennium Volunteers initiative. The idea is to encourage at least 1,000 people between the ages of 16 and 25 to become volunteers and set them up in new projects or put them in touch with existing organisations. The programme aims to promote a sustained commitment to voluntary activity which makes a clear impact in the community.
"It gives young people, many of whom are still at school, the opportunity to do things they might not otherwise do," says co-ordinator Fiona Aitken.
"For example, the Gorgie City Farm project in Edinburgh is helping young volunteers, some with learning disabilities or who just need extra support, to learn how to be volunteers at the farm, which is open to the public.
"Or there's the Youth FM project, which is recruiting young people to staff a radio station. There they can learn how to produce radio programmes and act as reporters.
"It's about promoting personal development skills, knowledge and experience. It's about meeting other people and broadening horizons while contributing to the community," she says.
"We are piloting a module which will give a mini Scottish Vocational Qualification covering core skills such as communication, working with others and problem solving. It will be a recognised course by 2001."
Every Millennium Volunteer will receive an award of excellence, signed by Scotland's First Minister, on completion of 200 hours of community service, the stipulated period to become a Millennium Volunteer.
"Two hundred hours might seem a long time, but over a year - or longer for those with special needs - that works out at four hours per week or two days per month," says Miss Aitken.
"Our aim is to have 1,000 volunteer stints completed by March next year. So far we have about 600 volunteers taking part, about 50 of whom have already completed their work, and only 25 have dropped out."
To date, there are more than 50 new projects up and running under the scheme, two of which are school-based. One, based at Greenburn and Maxwellton primary schools in East Kilbride, South Lanarkshire, has been set up to support the development of a community school which will work towards raising attainment and tackling social exclusion. The project is designed to support after-school care (involving Capability Scotland) and includes drama groups, art projects and a befriending or buddy scheme, bringing mainstream and special needs pupils together.
In the secondary sector, in Edinburgh the Currie and Balerno Community Schools Partnership is setting up a volunteer network in their neighbourhoods to provide opportunities which will benefit the pupils and the communities.
"A key objective of any Millennium Volunteers project is that it must address an identified need which is of benefit to the community," says Miss Aitken. "It can be a geographical community or a community of interest. For instance, Cornerstone Community Care in Aberdeen looks after people of all ages with disabilities. Here, the volunteers are befrienders, taking people out into the community to shop or go to the cinema, to do things they would not otherwise be able to do.
"Millennium Volunteers have a big say in what they do," she says. "They identify the kind of thing they want to do. Flexibility is the key, it's what young people want, and I think that's a major part of its success so far."
Liz Burns, the director of Volunteer Development Scotland, says: "The philosophy behind the Millennium Volunteer initiative is to create opportunities for personal growth in young people while they are contributing to society. It's about valuing young people and being of direct value to them."
What about the old chestnut that volunteers are just a bunch of do-gooders? "There's no harm in doing good," says Mrs Burns. "That's just a way of disparaging. It's not a way of understanding."
Mrs Burns is a former modern languages teacher who became involved in volunteering through the playgroup movement when she left teaching to care for her family. She says: "Volunteers gain as much as they put in in terms of training, core and transferable skills and in terms of accreditation. It's reciprocal.
"Young people might do it for a whole mix of motives and that's OK. I'd say it's cool to do something that makes your CV better, where you make new friends and, as in the Millennium Volunteers scheme, where you do something you want to do, where you have ownership. Ownership is a crucial principle here."
An example of ownership is the Bridging the Gap project in the Stobswell area of Dundee. Stobs-well is an area where youths have a bad name: more than 700 calls about "youth disturbance" were made to the local police between January and May last year. The project was set up by young people to counter the hooligan image and to break down barriers between young and old people in the area.
The focus is on befriending, with outings where, for example, the older people introduce their befrienders to grass bowling and they in turn are introduced to 10-pin bowling. Meetings are used to explore attitudes and judgments young and old people hold about each other and to investigate and compare the life experiences each have had.
"As teachers well know," says Mrs Burns, "when youngsters become involved it's to very good effect, as is shown by peer education strategies and schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh awards. A lot of the new Millennium Volunteers became involved through youth clubs and Scouting, through organisations which first drew them into some kind of community service.
"A growing number are now coming from schools. Citizenship education, though not quite as developed in Scotland as it is in England, is beginning to increase the likelihood of pupils becoming volunteers because their awareness is being raised.
"Volunteering is how huge numbers of people first engage with active citizenship and lifelong learning. It's a way of becoming included in society.
"The impact on the social economy is also huge: about 100 million hours a week with an economic value of pound;41 billion per year across the UK. This is given in the form of time, skills and energy aimed at making communities better, more caring and more interesting places to live."
One thing Millennium Volunteers - or any volunteers - are not used for is job substitution. Miss Aitken says: "We are very careful not to fund any volunteering where there is even a hint of job substitution. That's part of our best practice. Volunteers are not used to substitute for paid jobs.
"When we decided on the 200-hour input, a lot of adults pointed out that the courts often sentence people to 250 hours of community service and so we were asking rather a lot from young people," says Miss Aitken. "But young people don't see it like that. The uptake speaks for itself.
"In fact, I think we'll exceed the 1,000 volunteers target. By March next year we may be talking about 1,300 volunteers completing their 200 hours."
For Mrs Burns volunteering is about a way of life. "It's about how we organise society," she says. "Societies that make space for citizens, and especially for young citizens, to become involved in the way they see as useful and interesting, are open societies. You cannot, in reality, volunteer in a totalitarian state. Volunteering is nothing less than a defining feature of democracy."
Volunteer Development Scotland receives its project and its core funding from the Scottish Executive, with funds also coming from the National Lottery Charities Board, various trusts and from Standard Life.
"The Millennium Volunteers funding will run out next March and it will be up to the Scottish Parliament to fund it beyond that time," says Miss Aitken. "We're quite confident that will happen."
For more information on the Millennium Volunteers, contact Fiona Aitken at Volunteer Development Scotland, 72 Murray Place, Stirling FK8 2BX, tel 01786 479593. www.vds.org.uk