Why volunteer to help street children?

As a student in the UK you have a lot of things which demand your time:

  • so much to read and write;
  • friends to see;
  • embarrassing memories to create for the future (some of which are already embarrassing by the next morning, some of which take years to become embarrassing);
  • money can be tight too – with fees and other costs going up, you’ve probably not got much to spare, and may be working part-time to help make it through.

Is volunteering for a ‘street children’ organisation, in your university holidays, or just before or after university, worth it?

From my experience and that of others I’ve talked with, I’m going to say yes, and encourage you to consider if it’s for you. It’s not because a student volunteer can single-handedly transform the life of a child in poverty in three or six months. Poverty and deprivation are almost always much harder to overcome than that. You can be an additional help for local organisations already working with children, and volunteers can give them a useful boost. But that’s not the main reason to do it. Volunteering for several months isn’t principally a way for you to teach, but for you to learn. The person who’ll benefit most from it is you. I’ve never met anyone who’s said “I really regret those wasted months volunteering.” Of course, if the only person who would benefit is you, then I wouldn’t be writing this. The point is this:

  • the experience of volunteering will make you a more effective advocate for the rights of children in poverty.
  • by enriching your knowledge and understanding of issues affecting children in poverty, it’ll make you more persuasive when shaking a tin for a collection, or (probably more importantly) when lobbying an MP on development.
  • you may find, as I did, that the experience persuades you that you want to work for an NGO (in which case, be prepared for your relatives imagining that you live in a hut); or.
  • you may end up as a lawyer or a banker or an advertising executive – and, whilst such a route may horrify some of your mates, it then means that within these influential professions there will be one more person able and keen to articulate how their companies can help (and, equally importantly, not harm).

Some people find that volunteering overseas helps connect them with the globalised world, a chance to meet with people who live where our clothes are made and our waste is dumped, but who are otherwise kept out of sight and out of mind (and out of justice). Others find that volunteering to help people in poverty in the UK can be even more profound experience. The psychological strains of poverty in an industrialised country can be even harder than in the poorest countries – and for volunteers the situation is both literally and figuratively closer to home.

The key point is that by living and working alongside children and young people who have been dealt the least fair hand (and continue to be cheated by the croupiers), volunteers learn about the challenges they face. This can help the volunteers make a difference – mostly afterwards.

We can help better if we know more – and the most useful knowledge about kids in poverty comes directly from children who are themselves in poverty. Find out more about volunteering through SSSK by first looking at the information on the website, and if you need more help, contact sssk@sssk.org.uk

Ben Phillips, now Save the Childen Campaign Mobilisation Director, set up SSSK with Johnny Glennie in 1998 when they were both students.
[See Ben’s account of his volunteering experience in India, and what he did next at http://www.sssk.org.uk/PDF/SSSK_Newsletter_Sep_2006.pdf ]

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