Opinion: Four things I learned volunteering

OPINION: Over the past eight years I have done the following and not been paid for it: stood more than ankle deep in filthy silt,  spent hours putting stickers on French library books, and chased a mouse that managed to wiggle its way through the bars of its cage right in front of me.

I've done a whole bunch of other stuff too, but I feel like those three incidents show the range of roles you can end up doing for organisations that need the work done and can't always offer payment.

Below are the four main things I have learned while volunteering.

It sucks sometimes


I've spent more than one morning alone surrounded by dozens of animals run off my feet trying to clean up after them. Sometimes when you're doing a job people don't get paid for its hard to get shifts filled and you end up alone.

It's hard work and never quite feels like it's going to let up, but you keep going because if you don't get it done either somebody who gets paid to do another job will do it, or it won't get done.

It can also often be heartbreaking. I spent three days after the February 2011 earthquake digging silt with the Student Volunteer Army in what's now the red zone. It was backbreaking and dirty, mucky stuff, that always ended in me having to scrub black silt out from under my fingernails.

One of the standout memories from that week is standing next to an elderly resident as she counted the cracks in her home's foundation, wondering if this house was safe to still be in. I never saw her again after that day, but I hope she had support with her during the weeks, months and years after the quake because her house did not look in good shape.

It rules sometimes


Nearly 10 years on my other memory is rolling into the red zone with other members of the SVA to cheers from the locals. It felt really good to be helping out in, what was for some of them, quite literally a shitty time, even if all we could do is get the mud and sand that littered their streets out of their back gardens.

So yeah, it was heartbreaking and I couldn't decide if I hated being in charge of a spade or wheelbarrow more, but at least I felt like I was getting something done at a time when most of the city was stuck with the trauma of a very recent natural disaster.

Students with shovels and wheelbarrows digging silt off the street.
Canterbury University students clean up the streets after the earthquake. Photo credit: Getty

In my current volunteer role if we have enough people on I get a couple of quiet minutes to just hang out with the animals. It's a shelter, but they need socialisation and I am happy to give it, so that's a nice time and makes up for the hours you spend up to your elbows in dishes and dirty litter trays.

Empathy will drive you, but you need to keep it in check


Compassion fatigue is a thing. It used to be mostly felt among health professionals, but I was genuinely warned about it when I started my current volunteer role. You need to avoid getting mentally burnt out dealing with sad stuff.

That being said, it's really hard to avoid going over the top, getting emotionally attached to every animal, taking on every shift you can so things aren't too understaffed and spending your time between shifts thinking about what you left behind.

But you can't give your best if you're burnt out and caring for 10 pets you adopted because you felt sorry for them.  You have to find a balance and trust that yes, it seems hard now, but it will be hard next month, too, and you need to focus on what you can give within your limitations.

Charities have like no money


I'm always shocked at what lengths charities go to in order to save a bit of coin. Particularly in the area of animal care, when ensuring an animal has the correct food can be extremely expensive.

Everything is reused or recycled until it can't be used anymore, with some broken items repurposed for a new use rather than thrown out. Nobody misses out, but it's a far cry from the shiny corporate world.

What amazed me at my organisation was the sheer range of work that needs to be done and is taken up by volunteers. I can't imagine the organisation being able to switch the workforce over to paid in a hurry.

In fact, the CEO of the SPCA told me this herself about a year ago for a story.

"We rely so heavily on our volunteers in all areas of the organisation," Andrea Midgen said.

"They are the backbone of the organisation. We truly wouldn’t be able to run the SPCA without them."

So maybe it's worth finding out if a charity near you needs a hand.

Katie Fitzgerald is a Digital News Producer for Newshub and has worked in volunteer roles for several years.