One of the most rewarding things about being a member of the Unicrew executive committee is hearing from all our wonderful volunteers about their experiences helping out the community. There’s something so personal and relatable about hearing how volunteering has changed someone’s life. Today I was fortunate enough to talk to Michael Young, a History student studying here at Otago University.
I’ll leave it to Michael to explain how volunteering can change you:
I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for the experience I had volunteering at the homework club of a homeless shelter on Auckland’s North Shore I wouldn’t be where I am now. This is, in short, how volunteering made me a better person.
How did you become a volunteer?
Volunteering for me happened by accident. I was leaving class for lunch on one particularly rainy Tuesday at the start of Year 12 and my best friend suggested we head to a “Young Vinnies” (a volunteer based organisation with chapters in catholic schools throughout New Zealand) meeting so we could have lunch without getting drenched in rain. As I sat there eating my lunch I listened to the student leaders tell stories of children at DePaul house (the local homeless shelter) who had come from abusive households, had moved school 5 times in a single year or whose parents simply couldn’t afford to pay rent alongside other living costs. I suddenly thought maybe I could make a difference and make a positive impact on society so at the end of lunch I signed up for the homework club that my school ran on weekdays after school unaware that the work I would do there would have about as much impact on me as it would on the people I worked with.
How did volunteering change your vision of the future?
Yes, an unpaid, once weekly volunteer job at a homeless shelter sounds like a strange place to find your future career, but it was at DePaul House I discovered my career path. A few weeks after starting at DePaul house I was helping this year 9 kid called Benny out with his social studies project and, being a bit of a history buff, was explaining to him the causes of the Second World War. Suddenly, after answering one of his questions he said encouragingly “Wow, you should be a teacher”.
I smiled at Benny’s enthusiasm and continued to help him with his project. However, on the bus ride home I thought about Benny’s comment and realised that up to that point I had no real career plan. I had vague thoughts of becoming a real estate agent or joining the navy but being a teacher?. As time went on I thought about it more and after a few months of working with Benny and the other high school level students whose grades had started to go up as a result of me and other volunteer’s tutorials I realised I could use my mass of historical knowledge (achieved through a misspent childhood of Horrible Histories books and History Channel documentaries) to help students reach their fullest potential.
The next year I was thrilled to hear that Benny and his brother had gone up a class and had gone from earning low achieved in social studies to being solid merit/excellence students. Seeing students like Benny find potential in themselves to work hard and get good grades has inspired me to strive to help other people reach their potential not just in school, but in life.
How did volunteering change your worldview?
Anyone who has watched “The Real Housewives of Auckland” would presume that the North Shore of Auckland is full of rich, snobby people who sip cappuccinos and drive Mercedes to their offices. In some areas this isn’t too far from the truth but for every “rich” suburb there is always a “poor” suburb. Areas such as Northcote (where DePaul house is located), Glenfield, and Beach Haven have large proportions of low income families who struggle with high rents and rates. For some, the DePaul house is their only shelter. Until Year 12 however I knew nothing of the plight of families a mere 20-minute bus ride from where I lived in the fairly upmarket suburb of Murray’s Bay.
I knew there was some poverty in New Zealand but I always assumed that it wasn’t a problem on the North shore, in my neighbourhood. Then after a few visits to DePaul house I did a bit of googling and realised that the poverty numbers in New Zealand were huge. One in eight Kiwi kids live in poverty and in Auckland over 3,000 people are homeless.
It struck me that poverty wasn’t just widespread in third world countries but in my own backyard; a quick bus ride away from the cafes and beaches of the East Coast Bays people were struggling to make ends meet. It made me feel fortunate to have grown up in a home with a steady financial and housing situation but also made me even more determined to help the kids at DePaul house get on the educational ladder to success and, perhaps, a brighter future for themselves.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into volunteering?
Adjusting to the big bad world of University but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference in young people’s lives. You don’t have to have an Education degree to be an educator or a role model to younger people.
The website youthmentoring.org.nz provides hundreds of opportunities to get involved in programmes similar to DePaul house homework club. Aristotle once said that “Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity” so why not be that refuge for someone? One in eight kiwi kids are going through adversity and are looking for role models to show them how to be successful. Will you be that role model?
Thank you so much Michael! We are sure you have a wonderful future ahead of you.