Monday 24 October 2016

'Volunteering to help people with eating disorders was the best thing I ever did'

Volunteers are a vital part of any charity, providing essential support to those most in need. But the deed itself is also very rewarding, writes Grainne Coyne, who gives her own time to Bodywhys

Grainne Coyne and Jacinta Hastings of Bodywhys
Grainne Coyne and Jacinta Hastings of Bodywhys

Some people volunteer for experience, others to give something back. It can be a cause close to their heart or something that catches their interest, but volunteering has become a vital foundation for many of the charity organisations throughout the country.

For me, I was in the middle of job searching Twitter when I noticed that Bodywhys (The Eating Disorders Association of Ireland) were looking for volunteers.

I had worked with the organisation before on a project about eating disorders, and as a result I always wanted to help them in any way I could.

I filled out the application form, ticked the positions I wished to apply for and my reasons for wanting to volunteer. I was apprehensive because I was afraid that I wouldn't have the suitable skill-set, but keen to help because I was all too aware of how vital volunteers were to an organisation such as Bodywhys.


Bodywhys has become a vital support service for those who are suffering from eating disorders, and even a listening ear for their family members and friends.

Their important work was recently recognised by President Higgins at Aras an Uachtarain to celebrate Bodywhys' 20th anniversary, an event I was fortunate to attend.

Jacinta Hastings, Chief Executive Officer of Bodywhys, spoke of how the ceremony was recognition for the founders of Bodywhys and its volunteers.

"Bodywhys was established in 1995, so in 2015 we're celebrating 20 years of supporting people with eating disorders.

"And from that early beginning with the organisation the way it is now, the core ethos of the organisation has remained the same, but the growth and expansion has been in developing services."

At the core at each of those services Bodywhys rely heavily on the volunteers who help manage them. The organisation provides a range of support services to help those in need from their helpline, and face-to-face support groups in different locations across the country.

But those suffering from an eating disorder can also talk to others online thanks to their e-mail service (alex@bodywhys.ie), BodywhysConnect, an adult support network online, and Youth Connect, an online support group for those aged between 13 and 18.

All of these services are vital to those who are in search of support and manned by volunteers, which Jacinta stresses would not be possible without their help.

"We would consider the volunteers to be the absolute cornerstone and foundation of the organisation. We recruit, we train, and we support all of our volunteers to a very high standard."

My application to become a Bodywhys volunteer was successful, but my training made me aware of the ethos of the organisation.

I attended three different weekend training sessions, where I met others who were also volunteering for the organisation.

There I gained a whole new skill-set, a better understanding of eating disorders as a whole, and real admiration for what the organisation does for those in need.

Bodywhys provides a listening ear rather than a therapeutic service, but with that being the aim of the organisation, volunteers can provide real support to those with an eating disorder and where they are at in their life.

I also saw first-hand how vital their services can be to family members and friends of those with an eating disorder.

It can be distressing for someone to watch a loved one seemingly fade away as a result of an eating disorder and even more upsetting to not understand why.

The face-to-face support group that I shadowed for parents provided a safe space for them to talk about what they, and their children, were struggling with.

Since I initially started volunteering for the organisation it has grown in strength, with more people becoming aware of Bodywhys itself.

With this recognition there is also a surge in those coming to Eating Disorder Association for support.

In 2014, 70pc of the calls to the helpline were from first-time callers, 58pc of those who contacted the e-mail service were not in any form of treatment and there was also an 84pc increase in the attendance at Youth Connect.

Jacinta says that these findings relate to the organisation being more recognised than before.

"In one sense while we are seeing an increase of the services and it's possibly reflective of an increase in the rise of the issue, but also possibly reflective of the awareness of the organisation that can support people."

I mainly volunteered through the Bodywhys' e-mail service, providing an empathetic ear to those who came for support. It was most definitely a rewarding experience but an eye opening one too.

Receiving contact from someone who is going through a serious and complex mental health problem, makes you all too aware of the reality of what it's like to have an eating disorder, and how difficult that can be.


But many who came to Bodywhys for help initially, have now offered their services to the organisation which was once there for them in times of need.

In these scenarios Jacinta says that they would ask the individual to be in two years in recovery - this is to ensure that they won't be triggered by what they might potentially hear.

Jacinta, like other charity members I've spoken to, stresses that people volunteer for a variety of reasons, but without their help many organisations would not be able to reach those who are most in need.

"I think as a nation we have a very good history of giving up our time. People in Ireland are very generous and I think we saw that over the last number of years."

Volunteering was one of the best things I ever did. While I initially did it as a result of some spare time on my hands, it has turned into something a lot more rewarding, and has proven that small acts can make most definitely a huge difference.

If you're interested in volunteering go to www.bodywhys.ie/ getInvolved/volunteer/ where you can download and complete an application form for submission.


How to get involved: Organisations who are on the lookout for help

l Reachout.com is an online youth mental health service group. Naoise Kavanagh, Online Communications Manager for the site, stresses that the organisation couldn't provide the services they do without volunteers.

"Volunteers help us promote positive mental health at events, and they get to learn about mental health and looking after it with us. Many have also raised much needed funds for Reachout.com by getting sponsorship for walks, runs, head shaves or parachute jumps."

Interested? E-mail getinvolved@reachout.com telling the organisation about yourself and why you would like to volunteer.

l Age Action Ireland promotes positive ageing and better policies and services for ageing people. Its volunteers provide a wide range of services to help the elderly, from computer training to the care and repair programme.

Lorraine Fitzsimons, Deputy Chief Executive Officer for Age Action, says the organisation greatly values the contribution of their volunteers.

"We depend on volunteers because our funding has been cut like any other charity, right across the board, and without the active involvement of volunteers we wouldn't be able to provide the services that we do for older people."

E-mail info@ageaction.ie expressing an interest in volunteering for age action and they'll take it from there.

l Samaritans provides a range of services helping those who are struggling to cope. The charity recorded that in 2014, 5.3 million people in the UK and Republic of Ireland contacted their services from their 24-hour helpline, text and e-mail services.

People can volunteer by either attending their branche's next selection evening or sign up for training in Samaritans, where they would be put forward for a selection process.

If this sounds like something that might appeal to you, visit samaritans.org/volunteer-us/i-would-like-to-volunteer for more information.

l Dublin Rape Crisis Centre provides vital services of support for victims of rape and sexual violence. Mairead Mallon, Volunteer Co-Ordinator, says that volunteers help victims in numerous ways by enabling a 24-hour phone service, providing accompaniment for victims at the sexual assault treatment unit, and throughout courtroom cases. "We run the services from the volunteers, if we don't have the volunteers we can't do that."

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