At Drive Forward, volunteers are an integral part of what we do. From our experienced and inspiring trainers, whose knowledge helps to get our young care leavers job ready, to our mentors who guide them through their first few months in a new job, our volunteers are embedded in the services we provide.

We’re also advocates for the act of volunteering, encouraging our young people to give their time for their own and others’ benefit. The former is hugely successful, the latter less so.

The young people we support don’t always see the value of volunteering. That volunteering can open their eyes to different careers, give them a sense of self-worth and teach them new skills is meaningless when they’re struggling to find work and trying to make ends meet on a minimum income. Why would you give your time for free when you’re finding it hard to earn a basic living?

This transactional thinking is why we decided, as a team, to practice what we preach. Some of us volunteer in our own time but what better way to send a clear message about to our young people about the benefits of volunteering than to give a day as a team.

Spending much of our week in an office environment we were keen to get outside. Having worked with Benefacto (a social enterprise which organises employee volunteering) to attract volunteers to Drive Forward we knew they could help us find a great opportunity. Which is how we ended up getting wellied-up and spending the day at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

Getting our hands dirty

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park is one of London’s Magnificent Seven. Not only is the Victorian cemetery of historic importance, it is the capital’s most urban woodland and Tower Hamlets’ only dedicated woodland park.

Daniel, one of the Friends of the Park, met us at our scheduled arrival time, introduced us to the coffee and explained what they day would entail. We were issued with gloves and talked through the importance of working safely (i.e. laying rakes down in such a way as to avoid any Tom and Jerry style accidents) before we collected our tools and wheelbarrows and headed off for a day of weeding and clearing.

After a lesson in sticky willow identification we spent the morning clearing a far flung corner of the park with the aim of allowing abundant wildflowers to flourish. Initially the task appeared overwhelming – such was the size of the plot and the density of the weeds – but it’s amazing what you can accomplish as a team.

After lunch we set to work in the main cemetery. Our task was to remove the very small self-seeded saplings that over time would begin to take over the area, and to cut back larger trees, as directed by Dan who was armed with a can of environmentally-friendly coloured spray. We were again reunited with an abundance of sticky willow and sadly, quite a bit of litter. There was a bit of singing, plenty of laughing and a lot of barrows full of greenery thrown on the compost heap.

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Having cleared up after ourselves and safely returning the tools and equipment to the secure store our day was done and, over a well-deserved cold drink, we reflected on what the day had taught us.

Even short-term volunteering makes a difference

Looking at what we had accomplished in a single day made us feel proud. We know our young people can be put off by the prospect of volunteering because it can feel like they have to make a very long term or regular commitment for it to be worthwhile. As we have seen for ourselves, that’s not the case.

You can gain a fresh perspective

We have often billed volunteering as being a great way to get an insight into different organisations and roles within them but we have seen the wider benefits of simply removing yourself from your usual environment. Chatting through work issues in the fresh air and sunshine, with colleagues you perhaps don’t spend much time with normally, was really refreshing. Some of our young people spend a lot of time at home on their own; breaking that routine could be a real tonic.

Finding your place in your community

Or even creating your place in your community. We weren’t the only volunteers at the park; there are a number of ‘regulars’ who help out there. One had got involved as a way of meeting people when she moved into the area, another was between jobs and wanted to ‘keep busy and feel useful’ while he searched for new employment. Volunteering can help to reduce the isolation we know can be a huge barrier to our young people’s progression.

Understanding motivation is vital

The final and perhaps most important point for us.

The cemetery park was a great choice for our team because as well as being outside we were able to see the difference we had made as a group. Appreciating what motivates volunteers leads to a better experience for everyone. Our trainers and mentors are motivated by the progression of the young people they’re working with. For our young people it’s more about gaining tangible skills and experience that count towards their CV.

This raises two important questions for us. Firstly, do we do enough to keep our volunteers updated on what we (and they) are achieving? As we grow our mentoring scheme this is something for us to think about. Volunteers are part of our extended team and much of our internal communication will be relevant to them.

Secondly, how can we better demonstrate the tangible outcomes of volunteering to our young people? For us this will come down to matching young people to volunteering opportunities with the same precision as we do for paid employment and working with the provider of the volunteering opportunity to be clear on the mix of skills it can validate. Being able to demonstrate characteristics such as an interest in community, responsibility and dependability is great but if the project our young person has worked on is skill-related (which is what we specifically look for) then we’re potentially able to highlight a variety of experiences including leadership and communication or specific skills such as marketing and project management, which will be attractive to an employer.

It may be national Volunteers Week but our volunteers make a difference all year round and we are extremely grateful for their commitment. If you’re interested in volunteering your time to support young care leavers visit our website to find out more.

Thanks to our friends at Benefacto and the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park for enabling our volunteering day. You can see more photos of the day on our Facebook page.