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Volunteering saved my career and made me a better person

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: GDS team, People and skills

Hard times

In 2007 I’d been in a dead-end job for 5 years. I kept applying for other work, but was rejected repeatedly. My mental health was declining and the promise of my 20s was fading away.

I’d never been keen on the idea of volunteering. I’d thought that I should probably make some money before I started giving my time away for free.

A friend of mine was a volunteer at  Westminster Youth Offending Team (YOT). They pressured me into going. At around the same time, a regular customer where I worked had been talking about restorative justice. The YOT showed me a video about a man who had escaped a life of violent crime by being confronted with the effects of his actions. I was convinced that restorative justice made a difference and signed up to volunteer.

An upstanding member of my community (panel)

My first role at Westminster YOT was that of a community panel member. I represented the local community in meetings between young people who had pleaded guilty to crimes in court and been given a referral order.  For 2 months, I attended training every weekend. We covered topics such as tackling prejudice, active listening and understanding how the youth justice system worked.

My role was to ensure that young offenders took responsibility for their crimes. I worked with them to agree how and for how long they should recompense society or their victims. Sometimes I participated in mediating between the two parties.

All of this resonated with me. I’m lucky to have grown up in an environment which was relatively privileged. I didn’t face the barriers and problems other people my age did. I had opportunity and support. I know that my life could’ve turned out very differently and I felt I owed these young people something.

Volunteering got me free skills and a job!

As soon as I updated my CV, I had a job offer from a well-known national children’s charity. I accepted the job and worked there for a year. Then the economy collapsed. My mental health slumped along with it. I couldn’t find work again. I scraped along. Some days my volunteering was the only thing that got me out of bed.

Jacob Bonwitt speaking about his volunteering experience during Volunteering Week at GDS
Jacob Bonwitt

Volunteering gave me a reason to get up. I was constantly building skills, including mediation, active listening, working with young people and a host of others. I started mentoring a young person at risk of becoming a young offender and found myself taking responsibility for an 8-year-old boy for two days a month, which was pretty challenging!

Skills for a career, volunteering for fun and making a difference

My career (and I) had several other peaks and troughs, and gradually I stopped working with the YOT. But the skills I gained there were still serving me well in everyday life, and in a variety of jobs. I ended up at GDS, where I worked my way up to become a user researcher. My active listening skills are a premium asset in this role.

I still volunteer outside of GDS. In 2015, I started cooking at the Food Chain and hosting people with HIV/AIDS. This keeps me happy as I love cooking and pleases the people I'm cooking for, giving them the chance to eat good healthy food in a friendly environment. I also volunteer in my local community, doing chores for people who have various difficulties. You don't need to join an organisation to make a difference. There are people that need help near you.

Volunteering at GDS

Since becoming gainfully employed by GDS, I’ve done a lot of work with our charity group. Using my contacts with another major charity, Comic Relief, we picked Dragon Hall as GDS’s charity as it is aligned with our own ambitions.

I recently delivered a session there, teaching young people design and agile skills for solving problems, which in turn is further enhancing my CV and improving the profile of my employers.

One of the good things about working in the Civil Service is that it encourages volunteering. You are given 3 volunteer days every year, with an extra 2 at the discretion of your line manager. That and the fact that if you have the skills, you can get an interesting job in a stimulating environment.

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  1. Comment by Ronan posted on

    Nice blog post! I did a lot of volunteering in school but weirdly anytime I've tried to do it in London they never needed anybody - it was like long waiting lists and stuff. Very typical of London...

  2. Comment by Miriam posted on

    I loved this. I've been a volunteer for a long time and it enriches my life. I used to do literacy work with primary school students in London, and now at the other end of the life spectrum, I'm working with WW2 veterans. Both groups have given me a new perspective. It's also very useful for my job in UX and Plain English.

    • Replies to Miriam>

      Comment by Jacob Bonwitt posted on

      It's great to hear Miriam. Volunteering is definitely great for building and maintaining skills.

  3. Comment by Betsy Bassis posted on

    Absolutely fantastic blog. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Replies to Betsy Bassis>

      Comment by Jacob Bonwitt posted on

      My pleasure Betsy.

  4. Comment by mark posted on

    A positive and encouraging percpective on volunteering, with interesting detail on how you used your skills to influence others, and how a good outcome can be sought from personal difficulties.

    • Replies to mark>

      Comment by Jacob Bonwitt posted on

      Thanks Mark.

  5. Comment by Naomi Lees posted on

    Good work! Maybe the civil service needs to stretch to more than 3 days for volunteering. As Jacob highlights, this is something that contributes to wellbeing, skills and society in general.

  6. Comment by Will Callaghan posted on

    Hi Jacob, thanks for an amazing blog! I volunteer too and it's great to make a difference. Keep up the good work

    • Replies to Will Callaghan>

      Comment by Jacob Bonwitt posted on

      Cheers Will, always good to hear from fellow volunteers.

  7. Comment by Sheila bennett posted on

    What a well written and thought provoking piece. A really positive read 🙂

    • Replies to Sheila bennett>

      Comment by Jacob Bonwitt posted on

      Glad to hear, thanks Sheila.

  8. Comment by Sonja Jutte posted on

    Love this blog. How inspiring ! I loved reading about your journey from a YOT volunteer to being a user researcher. Interesting how transferable skills can be. Well done you Jacob!

    • Replies to Sonja Jutte>

      Comment by Jacob Bonwitt posted on

      Thanks Sonja, I think that most jobs have transferrable skills, its just a question of identifying when you have them!

  9. Comment by Jenny Mulholland posted on

    Thanks for sharing. I'd never linked volunteering and mental health before, but you're right, the one helps the other.

    • Replies to Jenny Mulholland>

      Comment by Jacob Bonwitt posted on

      Indeed. Having fulfilling stuff to do is a great help for depression. And likewise being under/unemployed is a major driver of mental health issues.

  10. Comment by Carl Harvey posted on

    A very honest , touching and timely blog. Just this week I have also embarked on a volunteering journey as a Digital Volunteer for Friends Action North East - a charity that helps support people with learning disabilities and/or Autism to make and keep friendships.

    Very nice to hear your positive story 🙂

    • Replies to Carl Harvey>

      Comment by Jacob Bonwitt posted on

      Thanks Carl, good luck with your volunteering. It sounds like a worthy cause indeed!

      I hope that your experience is as enriching for you as mine has been for me.

  11. Comment by Trine Andresen posted on

    What an interesting and positive blog - thanks for sharing.

    • Replies to Trine Andresen>

      Comment by Jacob Bonwitt posted on

      Thanks very much Trine, I am glad you enjoyed.