International Pen Pals
University of Limerick International Division
PVA Doing Speech – September 2016
Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me to speak today.
Volunteering is a journey which is different for each of us. As Ken Poirot (Poyro) said, “the best part of any journey is the surprise and wonder along the way”. This is true for volunteering, once we make that journey, it’s the people and their stories, that helps us to keep going, no matter what challenges lye ahead.
In 2010 it was clear to me that Limerick’s homeless network needed recreational activities. So I volunteered in two of Limerick’s city homeless shelters. I set up art classes for the residents with the goal of exhibiting their artwork in a public exhibition. This I hoped would help individuals rediscover their own self worth in being valuable members within our community.
On my journey I met many wonderful people, whom I now call friends. Some were once residents in the shelter and some still are. My volunteering experience taught me that everyone has a story and when we share someone’s story, we share their journey.
However, I wish I could say my volunteering was all straight forward. The simple truth is… it wasn’t! There were nights when I felt tired, discouraged and even questioned the impact that I could make. For example, sometimes only two or three individuals attended the class. With perseverance you learn that being a volunteer is more than just turning up. It’s about sharing your time, no matter how little or how much because every good act can make a real difference to someone else.
The people I befriended in the homeless shelters were just like you and me. They all had a family and a story, just like you and me. But somehow, somewhere on their journey they had become forgotten, to family, friends… even to themselves. No amount of volunteering was going to change their past, nothing I could say could console the pain they were experiencing. All I could do was be present. It was a message, a simple message of hope that said, “you’re not forgotten, I will walk with you on your journey”. And that is a volunteer. Someone who will share your journey.
By the time my University of Limerick experience was drawing to a close, Sarah and John from UL Chaplaincy cajoled me into filling in an application form for the PVA award. To be honest, at the time I was a little hesitant! You can imagine, it came as a real shock when I got a letter in the post, from President Don Barry for the award.
By now it was 2012 and the first exhibition was held in June. We exhibited over 80 artworks at the Augustinian Church on O’Connell St. With support form the community we remained open to the public for two weeks. After the exhibition the residents of the homeless shelters were keen to continue the art classes and they wanted to work towards a second exhibition. So I started making plans in September 2012 to continue the work with support form the Arts Council and the mayor.
As more individuals saw the work I was doing, more volunteers joined us in the shelters. For the next two years myself and two friends, Mark Spain and Peter Stout, developed the art classes in both homeless shelters. The small steps you take as a volunteer not only help those you work with; they can also inspire others around you. And every step you take on your journey will be one closer to making a real difference.
The small steps that we took led to us setting up a charity called the Half Way Art House in 2013. This helped to secure funding so that the work we were doing could continue. Since we started Half Way Art House, we have exhibited 7 art exhibitions and we were also part of Limerick City of Culture in 2014.
One thing I have learnt as a volunteer, is never miss an opportunity to raise awareness for your goals. Each year we have also been involved with the annual University of Limerick sleep out, with Campus Life Services and Chaplaincy, to further raise awareness in relation to homelessness in our city and raise much needed funds to continue our work and the work of Focus Ireland.
On a personal note, I would like to mention Focus Ireland’s recent findings. They have reported that over 6 ½ thousand people in Ireland are homeless. This includes adults and children. The number of families now homeless has increased by over 40% since last year. And one in three of those in emergency accommodation are children. This is why volunteering is ever more important in a society which is facing ever greater challenges.
When I began volunteering in the homeless shelters I learnt the real challenges faced by some of the most marginalised people in our community.
However, the simple act of sharing someone’s story, their journey… was enough to help them find their voice. Through art we brought that voice back to the heart of the community. Their stories inspired me. For as much as any volunteer puts in, you will receive much more back. That is a journey you do not want to miss out on!
So when someone asks me, how does volunteering change the world, I say, it’s the little things we do. Each of you have embarked on that journey. You have been that helping hand. You have said that kind word. You have shared a smile that has made a difference. It was Mother Teresa who said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone, across the waters to create many ripples”. And you volunteers have kept those ripples going. THAT’S how you, as Volunteers, are changing the world!
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