Image by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

On 5 September 2020, it will be the UN International Day of Charity. These World Days are in my opinion useful opportunities to be a part of the public discourse in one way or another. We can all do something to raise awareness about causes that we care about. However small, every action counts towards addressing global challenges.

What is “charity” and why does it matter? What acts of charity can you do and how do they help others? How can you fit it into a busy life? At what level in society can we act or hope to have an effect? These are just a few questions and there are many different answers. This article presents my experience and perspective.

You make your own choices. Joining the Red Cross here in Bergen (“Bergen Røde Kors”) and becoming an active volunteer in my local community has undoubtedly been one of the best decisions that I have ever made. What motivated me to do so, and now almost three years down the line, what can I say about it?

Volunteering as an act of giving

Charity can mean many things, though one thing that all meanings have in common is that it is an act of giving. Whether you give or donate money, give away items, give your time, give people the benefit of the doubt, and choose to judge people with kindness and tolerance, or give your love to humankind as an act of faith, you are giving something to someone or to a greater cause. I have chosen to address volunteering within a charitable organisation as an act of giving.

I would argue that this act of giving is rarely a one-way street. There is often a return, even though that is not the main drive. Through giving, we seek to establish a better balance and that means some adjusting on both ends of the scale. We are humans and interact with the world around us. I would argue that it is a win-win situation.

How did it happen?

I have always donated to charitable causes and occasionally share their news and activities on social media. However, donating money without any concrete actions or visible effects only goes so far in giving you a sense of doing something good.

I remember distinctly signing up to become a volunteer on the Bergen Red Cross website. I did it on Saturday 30 December 2017. It was that odd time of year between Christmas and New Year and I had had a particularly challenging year.

I needed to find a greater sense of purpose than my life was at the time giving me. I have always been a thinker and a dreamer, challenging the status quo of my existence and questioning what direction I want my life to take.

Supporting prisoners & rock climbing — really?

On that particular day I had been reading a newsletter from one of the several prison art charities that I follow, Koestler Arts, Shannon Trust, National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance. I then wondered if it would be possible to be a volunteer, going to visit prisoners in Bergen, Norway.

I was open for anything from being a person to chat with, or sit in silence with, be a pen friend or someone to do arts with. I had been considering becoming an art therapist before moving to Norway and had thought of working in prisons.

At that point, I had studied Norwegian for three years and I felt confident that I would be fine. I did some quick research and found out that the only organisation authorised to send people to visit prisoners was the Red Cross.

What motivated me to consider this? I wanted to meet new people, with diverse background and experiences, use my Norwegian, be an active part of my local community by giving something back. I wanted to contribute in a way that suited to my skills. I sought a sense of belonging and I wanted to help others also feel that they belong too, that we are in this together. That was how it all started.

About a month later, I attended the first compulsory course which was an introduction to the Red Cross. I found out about an activity called “Nettverk etter soning” which aims to help inmates re-enter society after serving their sentence. It felt like a way of helping them in an important stage of their lives, transitioning from a life inside to one outside.

I was then invited to another session for new volunteers working with prisoners. That was where I found out about another programme called “Døråpner”, literally meaning “door opener”. It is written on all buttons that open electric doors in Norway. Several activities are organised on weekday evenings to combat social isolation and offer support (climbing, swimming, social gatherings, and more). The programme is aimed at people who are recovering from addiction, tackling mental health issues or who are socially isolated and in need of a new network (which also can include ex-offenders).

Just over a year ago, I became the group leader for indoor rock climbing. I was thrilled at this new responsibility and accepted gladly. I have joined almost every single Monday and last year I became an indoor climbing instructor. Many people that I have spoken to outside Norway were surprised that the Red Cross organised sport and social activities. They only thought of blood donations. Now that I know how many different programmes they have, I realised that there really is something for everyone.

Volunteering can become like a job

Before the current coronavirus crisis, I was just in charge of making sure that the activity ran smoothly and attending meetings here and there. Then this summer, as we prepared to start up our activities again, my volunteering became much more like a job. There were many meetings to attend and I also had to prepare new rules for the climbing to take place because of national sanitary regulations for tackling the pandemic.

My tasks became almost daily, from administration, documentation, and promotional work, to following up with all volunteers, registering participants every week in advance, and coordinating with the climbing halls. A couple of weeks ago, I organised a social gathering for volunteers to get people back together after COVID19 and enjoy some outdoor climbing on one of Bergen’s last summer days.

I still have a five-hour session on a Monday evening where the climbing actually takes place. Why so long you might wonder? It takes time because we meet up in the centre, get all the gear ready, go to the climbing hall, climb for at least a couple of hours, then go back with the gear. I always get home late, exhausted, and yet always smiling. No matter how tiring it can be, I enjoy the responsibility, seeing people working together, and the joy that it brings.

How can you get started?

You can start small. Choose with your heart. Look up local voluntary or charity associations where you live or look for ones abroad who support the causes you care about. I had been following Koestler Arts in the UK for over a decade before becoming an active volunteer during COVID (see my last post, Kindness in times of Corona(virus)). In these days, you can also volunteer online, from anywhere and whenever suits you.

Once you join, you meet a lot of new people with shared interests and values, and you learn about other related activities. You start connecting dots between people. You know what people around you have to offer, and what the charity could benefit from. Things happen organically. You start talking with someone and then realise that you could involve them, if they want, as they have skills that others could benefit from.

Charity is about giving. Give to others and others give too. Frustrations can appear and of course, when you volunteer, everyone around you is also doing this for free, so it cannot always run like clockwork. In the end, when all is done, everybody benefits. But the feeling that I get from being a part of a community of people that care and who share my values and interests warms my heart on the coldest of days. It’s worth every minute. What are you waiting for?

I would love to hear your thoughts so please do comment below. If you would like to share your experience or ideas with me, contact me directly here.