I live in an area in Sheffield which is popular with students: loud parties, traffic cones on car roofs, takeaway boxes, all of that and more. It’s so easy to join in with the negative, “bloody students” narrative when you can’t walk down Ecclesall Road or Crookes without weaving your way through throngs of students taking up the entire pavement.
But, how about we look at another side to the Sheffield student story; one that focuses on what they bring to our city? Investment and a huge economic boost undoubtedly – millions of pounds are poured into cafes, restaurants, bars, pubs, clubs and shops in university cities every year. But it’s not all about the money.
On the whole, University students are intelligent and considerate young people, many of whom volunteer in the community and raise money for charity. In the year 2016-17, the University of Sheffield Students’ Union’s Raising and Giving committee (Sheffield RAG) raised £110,000 for charity!
A recent report from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, shows that 39% of under 25’s volunteer at least once a year, and 24% volunteer every month – young people are clearly a generous, motivated and committed group!
Making up a small part of these figures, 2000+ students from the University of Sheffield give up their time each year to volunteer in the city, supporting around 180 charities, organisations and projects, all facilitated through the Students’ Union’s Volunteering team. Opportunities are sourced from a wide range of causes, to broaden the appeal to as many students as possible, and make sure that there are a variety of roles available, from a weekly shift, to an occasional session, and even one off ‘give it a go’ options. Students can choose how and why they make a difference as a volunteer; with a homelessness project, working with asylum seekers, running a group for young people, tackling food waste, supporting a mental health charity. Plus, lots more besides.
I was interested to hear from organisations in the city who have benefitted from student volunteers about what impact the student have had on their work, but also to hear from student volunteers themselves about how their experiences of volunteering may have shaped them, their views on social issues, and even their future career aims.
Huge thanks go to The Sunday Centre, Snowdrop Project, Zest Community Centre and Adullam Homes Housing Association for sharing their experiences with me of how student volunteers have enabled them to continue to run and even expand their offerings to support service users, bringing with them innovation, enthusiasm, energy and an ever present work ethic.
Thanks also to University of Sheffield students Roopika, Ella, Jack and Sophie for telling me how their experiences of volunteering in the city have inspired them, challenged them and influenced their future. You are all stars!
The Sunday Centre is a small, local charity which serves the homeless and vulnerable in Sheffield City Centre. On Sundays, there is a particular need for a safe, warm refuge available to all as many of the other relief organisations working in the city are closed. Their main aim is to provide hot food and drinks, yet they also offer guests a genuine welcome and the chance to socialise.
“We are very fortunate at The Sunday Centre to have a great relationship with both of Sheffield’s universities and a number of student volunteers who work with us to serve our clients. On any given week during term time, about a third to half of our volunteers are students. Without their time and support, we may not be able to open.
We find the students who come to work with us to be enthusiastic, positive and hard working. One of our project’s core values is that our service users, our Guests, are made welcome and treated with the dignity that everyone deserves. We find our student volunteers understand this and act on that value every time they work with us.
Student volunteers also make a very positive impact in terms of diversity. For a number of reasons, volunteering is often something people do later in life. That’s fine in itself, but it can mean that volunteers don’t always reflect the diverse population of service users. Our student volunteers are usually younger and that can be helpful in making younger Guests feel welcome.
We have also benefited from having international students volunteer with us. One example of their extra contribution has been where they have been able to talk to refugee Guests in their own language.” – Steve Clark, Chair, The Sunday Centre
Snowdrop Project provide long-term support to empower survivors of human trafficking. They work closely with clients to ensure their individual needs, which are often complex, are met.
“Our volunteer students are so important to the work we do at the Snowdrop Project. We support survivors of trafficking in moving on from their past and one of the key ways of supporting them is by providing classes such as dance, sewing and English classes and our toddler group. One of our clients said the dance classes are the one hour in the week where she could forget everything else that was going on in her life and feel happy and enjoy herself. She said that that feeling stayed with her for the rest of the week.” – Denise Lawrenson, Community Facilitator, Snowdrop Project
Zest have a vision; to enable everyone in our communities to lead successful and healthy lives. They provide a healthy living centre delivering responsive services to tackle local inequalities, such as health and wellbeing, employment and skills and sport, leisure and recreation.
“The generosity of students from the University of Sheffield has been instrumental in the success of Zest’s Children’s project. Zest offers free daily activities, both after school, and during the holidays which offer local families a chance to positively engage in the community and have access to opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to access or afford. During the school holidays, we also offer free lunch and breakfast to children who would normally be accessing free school meals. All of our activities are supported by volunteers, and without this support, we wouldn’t be able to offer this valuable provision. This service really does enhance the lives of families within our community, and without the help of students from the University, this would not be possible. – Megan Drury, Zest
Adullam Homes Housing Association is a specialist provider of quality housing and support services. They support vulnerable people in society and offer hope and dignity by helping with housing, independent living skills, education, training and employment and emotional support.
“We have worked with a number of student volunteers at Adullam Homes Housing Association, and they have made a valuable contribution to our service. They have helped with the implementation of art groups, mindfulness sessions, walking groups, alpaca trekking & providing support to staff delivering workshops centred around confidence, motivation and employment skills. We could not provide the numerous engagement activities that we are so proud of without involvement from our student volunteers. Student volunteers are a vital part of our continued work to tackle the social isolation that affects so many people who live with poor mental health.” – Nick Etherington, Adullam Homes Housing Association
Hearing from just these four organisations, it is clear to see the huge impact that student volunteers are having on some of the most vulnerable people in the city. Their presence is allowing much needed projects to continue running, freeing up valuable time of staff members to concentrate on other work, and making a lasting and positive impression on people’s lives.
The other side of the story belongs to the student volunteers – what are their experiences and what do they gain from volunteering in the city?
International student Roopika tells her story – “I wanted to lend a hand to charity workers and join their cause of spreading love and kindness. I chose to volunteer at the Sunday Centre, mainly because the timings fit my schedule, but after a few weeks I understood how acute a problem homelessness is. I think the root of the solution lies in looking out for and helping those around us in need. Many volunteers of the Sunday Centre have been working towards this for over a decade. Their cheerfulness and simplicity inspire me. I have realised that it is crucial for students to participate in grassroots level volunteering, as it helps us stay grounded and provides us with rewarding experiences.”
Student Ella said – “Most of my volunteering has been with a student-led science communications organisation called Science Brainwaves. We run numerous fun science-themed activities for children of all ages (adults can join in too!) at fairs, after school clubs and other events around Sheffield. I hope that through our community engagement we have inspired a new generation of scientists, or at least taught them something new about science!”
Student Jack shared his experiences – “Volunteering, and especially being a project leader, has given me a greater sense of purpose and self-confidence. It has helped me stayed focused and given me responsibility. Even when other aspects in life weren’t going so well I had to deliver this event because people were relying on me, and it made me feel good! Seeing the smiles on kid’s faces as we blow their minds is definitely the best part. If I can have a small part to play in helping a child decide that any part of science is what they want to do then that is just icing on the cake!”
Student Sophie reflected, “I am so glad I had the opportunity to become a STEM volunteer with Sheffield Volunteering! Not only do you inspire future scientists, mathematicians and engineers, you also revert to being a child again. It’s the perfect way to escape the university bubble for an afternoon and to get involved in the wider South Yorkshire community. It is such a gift to see children engage with STEM with such enthusiasm, particularly girls. I only wish my school lessons were this inspiring.”
The overwhelming impression I’m left with after speaking to Sheffield organisations who take student volunteers, and from students themselves, is that the future looks very bright! Despite charities struggling for funding, and client need ever increasing, by partnering with local Universities and working with student volunteers, they can continue to flourish and support those in need. If students are encouraged to give up a few hours of their free time each week, and charities, organisations and projects continue to provide roles that really get the best out of young, enthusiastic and innovative minds, there can be no losers.
Students gain valuable work experience and have their eyes opened to a world away from their lecture rooms and halls. Volunteering whilst at University can influence their future career path and help ensure they keep fairness, equality and tackling social injustices at the forefront of their mind. And the organisations taking student volunteers can continue to run their services; supporting vulnerable people in the city, with a steady stream of new ideas and plenty of willing hands.