[BLOG] Six things I have learnt from being a full-time volunteer with City Year UK: Alison Lydon

It’s Volunteers’ Week, what better way to celebrate my time at City Year UK then to share six things I have learnt as a full-time volunteer! So here goes…

1. You will learn to be extremely proud of what you are doing.

Back in early August 2016, when I first heard about City Year UK, I remember thinking how admirable it was that young people had decided to give a year of their lives to help tackle educational inequality. I thought about it for a couple of days, before sending off an application. Even when I had sent off the application, I was unsure that I would be able go through with it, a year is a long time not earning money, especially since I had already spent three months volunteering full-time in Nigeria in early 2016. Within a couple of days of applying, I had my interview and was ready with a uniform to start training the following week. I still wasn’t quite sure what I had got myself into. Ten months later, I can say that I have almost completed my year of service, I can speak proudly to family and friends about my work, and be proud of the fact that I am a volunteer. Until recently, I had omitted that detail for fear that it would have devalued the work we are doing. However, after speaking openly and honestly, I have only had a positive response, and I realise that not many people can say they have spent a year of their life dedicated to helping a cause they believe in.

2. Working with children and young people is every bit as rewarding (and challenging) as everyone says.

My biggest concern during my first week in school was remembering children’s names, I’m terrible with names. I could describe a person in detail and recall several facts about them without remembering their name, and in a school of over 450 children, I thought this would be an issue. I soon found this wasn’t a problem, a lot of the students were so keen to introduce themselves to the exciting new staff in school that I soon found myself learning so many of the children’s names and unique personalities very quickly.


Supporting some of the trickier pupils to manage their behaviour is just as rewarding as building the confidence of pupils with a lower ability. You have to adjust your approach and work out what motivates different pupils, while still being authentic and fair.

You develop the ability to be completely calm and patient in some of the most stressful situations. On a Thursday afternoon, myself and another volunteer run a textiles after-school club, where twenty-five children (some of whom have never picked up a needle and thread in their life) had the project of making a cushion. Ten weeks of non-stop ‘Miss Miss Miss, I need help!’ for an hour, was all made worth it when you see the pride and joy when the children got to take their cushion home.

3. You will make some lasting friendships with an incredible group of people.

It’s not often you will get the chance to work somewhere where you have such an important shared value of helping others, and my fellow volunteers and staff in the Manchester office are a diverse group of extraordinary people.


I moved to Manchester knowing nobody, and haven’t felt alone at any point during the year. This has been in part due to my lovely housemates (also City Year volunteers) but also thanks to my school team, who have kept me sane and listened to my problems over endless cups of coffee and cake. The Friday sessions feel like friends meeting for a catch up once a week, with my favourite sessions being the ‘spotlight on’ sessions, where we get to see exactly what the other teams are up to in their schools, put faces to the names of focus list pupils we have heard so much about, and showcase our own work.

4. It can be incredibly tough at times.


As a volunteer, I expect a lot more from my role than if I were being paid. If I am having a bad week, worrying about money or not seeing the impact that my volunteering is having on a daily basis, it is very easy to question what is keeping you there. In a paid role, a salary is always there as an incentive (in some of the jobs I have had it has been the only incentive). My advice to fellow volunteers at these times would be to always look at the bigger picture, don’t get wrapped up in the everyday smaller struggles and instead think about the overall impact you have had over the year and your reasons for starting a year of service to begin with.

5.Challenging yourself will not be as scary as it used to be.

During the year there have been so many opportunities to push myself out of my comfort zone, and I now have the attitude of saying ‘yes’ to as many things as possible. From giving out certificates in assembly every week, to designing and delivering assemblies with the team. I’ve done presentations on Friday sessions, as well as delivering and designing an hour long session on international development and volunteering overseas to my fellow volunteers. I was given the opportunity to write and deliver a talk to prominent members of the Trafford community, as well as have mock interviews with huge corporations. These situations no longer fill me with anxiety and dread, in fact I enjoy being able to get up in front of people and share my experiences, something I would have been terrified to do just over a year ago.


6. You will have a much better idea of what you want your future to look like

The experience of being a full-time volunteer for a year will undoubtedly change what you want from your next job and a long-term career. Whether it’s knowing you want a career working with children or staying in the education sector, or knowing that you want a role which makes you feel like you are making a positive difference.


The leadership development programme enables you to explore different options by talking to people who have been successful in their field, and the bridge builder scheme gives you a mentor to help you decide your next steps as well as get CV and interview support. Initially, I found it daunting being told I need to think about what I am doing next and my future options every week, but sometimes it’s necessary to have that little push in the right direction, and I feel much more reassured about my next steps.

To find out more about City Year’s ILM-accredited programme, visit www.cityyear.org.uk/join. Or follow us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

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