The Head, Bart Wielenga

The Head's Blog

A Volunteer's Experience

This week I have decided to hand my blog over to senior monitor Luke Simpson, as I was so impressed when Luke addressed the school earlier in the term with his very moving account on volunteering that I wanted to share it with the wider community. What Luke describes is so much part of what we want to create at Blundell’s, I could not have said it better myself. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

I was lucky enough to spend two weeks of my summer volunteering at a children’s camp as part of the Rank Leadership Award I gained in year 11. Before beginning my placement I had imagined volunteers as utterly selfless people it had never occurred to me how enjoyable volunteering could be and that volunteering isn’t all about giving. There is a huge amount to gain from helping others and I wanted to give you some insight into my experience and the effect it had on me.

In order to give a bit of understanding about the placement, let me share with you some details on the charity I was working with. Over-the-Wall camps provide an opportunity for children and teenagers with serious health difficulties to get away from home and the medicalised environments they are used to. For many of these children they face a reality of not being able to take part in many of the everyday activities we all take for granted. For many kids seeing their peers do things they are unable to can be difficult and hard to understand. Time away from school can have a serious effect on their friendships and mental health often leading to young children maturing at a far faster rate in order to fit into their often adult oriented environment.

At Over-the-Wall they are able take part in a range of outdoor and recreational activities as well as just socialise amongst people their age in a safe setting. For many of these children it was the first time they had been away from their parents as they had remained dependent on the medication they needed to keep them healthy. The charity provides for all the medical needs of these children but in a de-medicalised manner. For example, what we might call the sanatorium, was called the beach hut and the nurses were called beach patrol. The kids are put into age groups and looked after throughout the week by their teammates who are the volunteers.

This was my role for the two weeks and we were there for the supervision, support and friendship of the campers. We helped facilitate their most basic needs, which were often extremely important for their health and wellbeing. We were told only the symptoms of the children’s conditions and what they meant, in order to seek medical help if they needed, but otherwise we were told nothing of their medical history. This was to allow us to see the children only as children, and for them to get away from the medical labelling they had likely experienced throughout their lives.

My experience was to be wholly fun, enlightening and uplifting if not at times extremely tiring. The camp's relentlessly positive nature is hard to find elsewhere, and the effect this had on campers and volunteers alike was remarkable to see. Encapsulating the ambience and day to day life of camp is near impossible, but there are a few of my favourite moments which I think demonstrates the fun and uplifting nature of what goes on at camp.

One of these came early in my second week. The non-stop nature of what I was doing was beginning to take its toll and I had managed to score a few minutes playing with Lego during a time of free play. It was only after about 5 minutes of attempting, unsuccessfully, to build a small tractor, that I was no longer in the company of any campers as they had all gone to play elsewhere. Instead, I was now just sitting around a table playing with Lego with a teacher, an accountant and a doctor dressed as a flamingo.

Later in that week I was challenged by a young girl called Danielle to sing ‘That’s what makes you beautiful’ by One Direction in front of all 150 people at the camp. I obliged, of course, unbeknown to her this is a regular pastime of mine anyway. In this moment I felt the incredible atmosphere of camp was demonstrated to me in just a few minutes. In many other places, my undoubtedly tuneless solo rendition of the song probably would have fallen flat, but here I was joined by all those who knew the words and to rapturous applause.

Another of the camp activities run is called Stage Night. This is essentially an opportunity for any of the campers to come on stage and perform anything they like. Two of the girls from my group, unsurprisingly one of them being the one who wanted me to sing in front of everyone, decided they would like to dress me up as the female rapper Cardi B and interview me. This included a wig and for some reason a glitter beard. Never when I was offered a leadership award did I think it would lead to performing in drag and singing One Direction songs in front of large crowds. The effect that this stage night had on the campers was clear to see. Their self-esteem rose instantly as they realised the positive effect they could have on those around them. Many parents reported seeing a new positive attitude in their children, an acceptance of their illness or a re-engagement with people their own age.

Over-the-Wall is not simply a charity that provides a week’s fun for these kids but one that facilitates life-changing positive effects on children’s confidence, happiness and general wellbeing. Essentially this is done just through the power of being kind and having innocent fun. The principles the camp are built on create an incredibly safe, welcoming and, at times, crazy environment. The children take part in activities and are encouraged to reach what we called their ‘stretch zone’; the point at which they felt they were pushing their comfort zone within the bounds of enjoyment.

Reflection was also a huge part of the children’s experience; it was important they had the opportunity to reflect on what they had achieved and this was always based on a personal level; what the child had done well themselves, rather than what they had done compared to their peers.

At Blundell’s, I think we often compare ourselves to each other so much that we lose track of our personal progression or endeavour. It is easy to be negative about the fact that someone may seem to be doing better than you, and although competition is healthy, it shouldn’t let us lose sight of the value of personal achievement. We should at times allow ourselves a little self-congratulation, and just as importantly provide someone else with a little encouragement to make them feel better.

It is the principles of relentless kindness and positivity as well as that of personal reflection that I want to take away from my experience with Over-the-Wall. If we work to emulate the values of kindness and empathy, we can all help to make Blundell’s an even more special place for all of us.