"Can you say something inspiring?" said the lovely lady from the library. "Er...inspiring? Er..."
"Yes! You know, about your volunteering experience, and your library project and how it's helped your career?"
"Er...I'll do my best." And here it is, an edited version of my 20 minute keynote speech at an event celebrating the achievements of young volunteers who have helped Kirklees libraries in recent weeks:
Can I start by saying what a great thing it is that you’ve done by volunteering at the library. Volunteering can be hard. I know, I’ve done it. You give your time, your energy, your passion for the subject and your skills to an organisation who, in this case, really couldn’t have done that particular thing without you. Sometimes, in the chaos of the day, it feels as if you get very little recognition in return, but that’s only if you end up volunteering in a company that doesn’t really understand what you can bring to an organisation, or how best to nurture you. I happen to think that you’ve hit the jackpot by volunteering at the library, but then I’m biased.
I’m also quite loyal to the ethos of volunteering because, if I’m honest, it was the making of me. I was 27 years old when I applied to volunteer overseas, which might seem a million miles away from where you are now, but who’s to say you won’t do the same in years to come? I ended up spending almost 4 years living and working overseas in the international development sector, and it has led me down a very rewarding path. So although volunteering can be hard and full of challenges (especially if you do it for a long time) I’ll say this, you only need to put a few hours in for it to become a powerful driving force for change in your life.
People say it’s useful to put volunteering on your CV, and yes, they’re right, but it’s not just about ‘getting that job on your CV.’ Reducing your volunteering experience down to 'just a job' means that you forget to acknowledge how it gives you confidence, how you've learned about the workings of an organisation (if you’re paying attention and not on Facebook that is) and about organisational politics, and how you've learned make new connections and expand your network – all of this matters because when organisations are looking for someone unique and committed, they’ll think of you. They’ll think of that volunteer who turned up on time, made an effort, spoke to people with a smile, asked questions, and was interested. They will think of you.
What you’ve shown in taking part in this scheme is commitment, not just to the library service and the people you’ve worked with, but to everyone you’ve invited to be here with you tonight. You’ve shown what you’re made of to your wider circle of family and friends. And it doesn’t matter that no one else you know does this kind of thing, what matters is that you do, and the fact that you’ve made an effort makes a difference. It’s made a difference to the children you’ve worked with to see that people of all ages remain enthusiastic about books, about reading, and about being part of this unique public service.
I said earlier that I think you’ve hit the jackpot volunteering for the library service, and that’s not just because they seem to have a limitless supply of tea, biscuits and cakes, but because you’re in the perfect place to research ideas for the type of careers you want to pursue in life. So my advice to you is don’t limit yourself to one thing. This public institution, this unique, chaotic and slightly smelly building is a one-stop shop for advice and knowledge. There are things here at your fingertips that could lead you down several fruitful paths in life, if you know where to look. And if you don’t know where to look, trust me, a librarian can find you anything you need to know.
I didn’t realise just how far librarians go to make sure people get the information that they need until I started working here as a writer in residence, making me part of this brilliant institution. Incidentally, my writing residency was a voluntary activity. I’m a writer and researcher by profession, and this was just a small project that I wanted to do for myself. Two years later, and I’m still engrossed in it. It’s led to work from more clients, opportunities like this to meet like-minded people and speak about the library service, a blog series, a series of podcasts on the way, and me becoming a regular volunteer news reader on the KR Talking News. It’s also led to me feeling part of the local community, which is important.
In short, I’ve created my own opportunities through volunteering, and that’s my advice and my wish for you too – that you create your own opportunities. Don’t wait for your ideal jobs to be advertised. Use this institution to discover what you really want in life. The access you have to free literature will give you ideas about how to live your life, about options you may not have considered or may feel out of reach, about the bravery and stubbornness of generations before, and about how you can carve out your own successful future.
So, congratulations on successfully completing your volunteering placements here at the library. You’ve all earned this evening of recognition. I hope to see your faces around the library in the future and thanks for listening.