When I was a teenager, I heard a doctor talking about his years working in Labrador, Canada. It sounded exciting and I was inspired.
Before I left school, I applied for a volunteer position with the Grenfell Association, formerly the Grenfell Mission and then running all the medical work in Northern Newfoundland and Labrador on behalf of the government.
In the months after I left school, I duly rolled up and was given the position, as a volunteer, of a radio operator. I worked 24-hour shifts every three days. My responsibility was extraordinary, and I was just 18. We operated two planes, one on skis (and these were Arctic conditions) and one with wheels, across these highly remote areas, and I was responsible for despatching the aircraft, arranging passenger lists, filing flight plans, obtaining weather forecasts for pilots, and maintaining contact with our many local nursing stations.
I also had to arrange a rapid response to medical emergencies at all hours of the day and night. It was immensely exciting, led to many adventures (and lots of bush flying) – and the spending of large amounts of government money! It opened my eyes to how life-changing and rewarding volunteering can be.
Volunteering remains the backbone of The Mission to Seafarers. While some of the countries where we work have no culture of volunteering, in many others volunteers are the beating heart of what we do. We value every one of them. My January visits so far – to Hull, Rotterdam, Vlissingen, Antwerp, and Cyprus have reminded me of our immense gratitude to our volunteers, but also of the challenges we face.
Following COVID-19, we have lost many of our volunteers, as have other organisations. Many were in any case older, and three years down the line many no longer feel able to do what they once did. Some have become involved in other things or have reprioritised their lives. Others, wonderfully, have remained with us, perhaps have even come back with new ideas and energy.
Humber was just one place where I met and lunched with a vibrant and buzzing group of volunteers, both old hands and new, under the very able leadership of new chaplain The Revd Tim Linkens. One couple from that group manage and support our new Centre at Groveport, a small but perfectly formed new facility which I saw for the first time. They are also great at social media and have built a second extraordinary volunteering ministry, keeping in supportive and prayerful touch with abandoned seafarers around the globe. They brought with them the fascinating log they keep. This was a true eye-opener for me – inspiring indeed!
Cyprus is also now under new chaplaincy – the very experienced Revd John Attenborough. There, a combination of factors has led to the significant downsizing of a once notably big volunteering team. As elsewhere, they are looking to rebuild that team. That challenge also combines with the other post-COVID challenge: rebuilding our work in line with a somewhat changed maritime world. In many places, volunteer teams will need to have a slightly different profile. Already, new recruits are coming forward there, including some really young faces.
There are many ways of recruiting volunteers. Some that I met in Humber had responded to adverts in the local paper, become involved through local churches, or been inspired by hearing a talk given by the local chaplain. Some were ex-seafarers who wanted to give back into a world which had meant so much to them.
Recruiting volunteers is one thing. Retaining them is another. We need to make sure that the roles they do are fulfilling and rewarding. Sitting for hours in an empty Centre can be very depressing, for example. One of our former Regional Directors, who had one of MtS’s largest volunteer teams, used to talk about his two “client” groups – the seafarers and the volunteers. Both needed to feel nurtured, valued, and supported. Both needed to be properly looked after.
Marvellously, volunteers come because they want to serve, help, transform lives, and make a difference. Many also want to feel part of a community, enjoy new friendships, do something exciting, find a fresh fulfilment, and develop new skills.
This year will need to be a big year in our work with volunteers. We will need to be proactive and inspirational and make sure the work we are proposing will be rewarding. However, we have the big advantage of working in ports and ships, which can be adventurous and exciting environments in themselves, quite apart from the specifics of our work. I salute all who continue to give such fantastic service as volunteers and encourage all those who might be thinking about it. I have met countless superb and inspiring MtS volunteers right across the world.
Here’s to many more!