We all know that doing #BagsMore in your community is a positive thing to do. But not everyone knows just how much local causes rely on everyday volunteers. Even an hour a week can make the world of difference to a small charity – which is why we wanted to show just how easy it is to help out a cause near you.
We spoke to Catrina, who volunteers for Autism NI. A Northern Irish charity that supports individuals and parents affected by autism, Catrina chose to donate her time after they were able to support her family.
“I got involved with volunteering with Autism NI because I have a six year old son who’s on the spectrum,” she explains. “We had to fight to get support, but Autism NI were there for us when nothing else was. I wanted to help them be there for other families in our situation too.”
Many families in the UK struggle to achieve an autism diagnosis while their children are young. The process can be long and confusing, and getting help from the education system can be equally difficult. Autism NI is there to give families the support they need during this tricky time, using “early intervention” to help them develop skills that can make their everyday lives run a little bit smoother.
But it wasn’t just this that made the charity so close to Catrina’s heart. After securing her son’s diagnosis, she also joined one of Autism NI’s local support groups. With over 20 groups based in communities across Northern Island, the charity works hard to offer a space for parents and carers to support one another.
“Sometimes friends can’t relate to you when you talk about autism – they don’t know what to say,” explains Catrina. “But at the support groups, you meet friends who are going through the same as you. You just bounce off each other, and it helps you realise you’re not on your own.”
She continues: “all you do is sit and have a cup of tea, chat and relax. But that’s your time, that’s your space. And that’s probably the only space you’ll get that day! So it’s really valuable for parents.”
The decision to start volunteering was therefore a very easy one.
“The North Belfast parent support group was so helpful for me,” says Catrina. “I wanted to help them spread awareness and offer support in more areas of Northern Island. So I started volunteering as a fundraiser.”
It was as simple as that. Now, Catrina and her family help organise everything from Christmas jumper days to charity cycle rides and sponsored ‘superhero’ walks.
“They’re fantastic because the whole family can get involved,” says Catrina. “I have three other children, and organising fundraising events means I can involve my other kids, not just the one with autism.”
“You get so much satisfaction from it too. When you walk away from the fundraising day and you see what a success it’s been, and the money raised, you get an awful lot of pleasure out of it.”
As well as fundraisers, Autism NI relies on volunteers to help with admin, set up support groups, and raise awareness through their ‘Autism Ambassadors’ scheme. Like many local causes, it couldn’t exist without its volunteers – and as a result, there are all sorts of opportunities to get involved.
“If we didn’t do this, then Autism NI wouldn’t be here,” says Catrina simply. “So if you’re thinking about volunteering, definitely, definitely do it. It’s so worth it.”
OTHER SERVICES FOR FAMILIES LIVING WITH AUTISM: