Andy Broomhead, Head of Volunteering at Diabetes UK, shares how they adapted plans to celebrate Volunteers’ Week in light of the global pandemic

I think Volunteers’ Week has a greater-than-usual significance this year. Whilst in some areas there’s been an explosion in volunteering, social action, community support and organisation, in others the impact of coronavirus has seen charities and volunteers put their plans on hold almost immediately.

At Diabetes UK, as at many other health and well-being charities, we took the decision to pause the vast majority of our volunteering relatively early on in the pandemic. Many of our volunteers are in higher risk groups and it’s important that their welfare is protected first and foremost.

One of the things volunteers are great at doing is connecting with and supporting people that charities might not otherwise see. Their passion, authenticity and ties to their communities make them the trusted figures representing our organisations. At times like these, sharing those important messages to help people manage their health is vital. Volunteers understand and can empathise in a unique way that is so valuable for members of the public.

When health and well-being is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, reassurance, guidance and quality information is now more highly valued than ever. As we strive to separate fact from fiction and provide help to people who need our advice and support the most, it’s now that I think of volunteers caught between their drive to help others, whilst being unable to do that in the ways they know best.

Volunteers bring resilience and determination to our causes and I’m sure that my experience at Diabetes UK will be familiar to many other volunteer managers across the country. 

We’ve seen many of our volunteer-led groups turn to technology to continue supporting people affected by diabetes without missing a beat, becoming Zoom experts overnight. Volunteers have also been in contact with ideas for how they can continue doing the things they care deeply about, and suggestions for new ways to help with the changing demands people are facing.

We’ve also seen some of our roles expand with more volunteers looking to take part in what had been a small befriending service in one part of England but is rapidly growing across other parts of the UK.

We know how important volunteering can be for people’s well-being, and for many to have had those opportunities curtailed in a short space of time has been incredibly challenging. But it should be no surprise to any of us that volunteers have come into their own. 

The willingness and adaptability of volunteers to stand firm is inspiring. I know in a few charities some volunteers have even argued that their volunteering is more important than their own health and wanted to continue regardless – such is their commitment to helping others.

Volunteers’ Week rightly shines the light on all those people who donate their time, skills and dedication to the causes that matter to them. Whether they’re able to volunteer right here and right now is secondary. The collective efforts of volunteers over the last few days, weeks, months and years is what we’re coming together to celebrate this week.

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