A graduate’s experience of volunteering at Skelton Grange

Volunteering is one of the ways young people help to improve the communities they live in whilst acquiring the skills they need to get the job they want.

Today’s blog was written by Gemma, a university graduate who decided to volunteer at the Skelton Grange Environmental Centre in order to improve her employability and gain a better understanding of the job that was right for her. Here’s what Gemma had to say about her experience….

I first found the role on the ‘Do-It’ volunteering website – it was advertised as a six-month Volunteer Officer programme at Skelton Grange Environment Centre. The description identified two main activities: environmental education and practical conservation. I didn’t know much about either but the advert said ‘no experience necessary, all training provided,’ so I took a chance, applied and was accepted!

Five months in and I can’t quite believe the amount of experience I have gained. A major part of my role has been teaching primary school children who come to visit the centre. Subjects have ranged from the five senses, to interdependence and adaptation. I’ve also carried out conservation tasks like hogweed clearing and bat box making, and as part of my training I received a first aid qualification. Spending a lot of time outdoors has made me feel fitter and healthier too.

My favourite part of my time here has been planning and leading activity days in the wood – or ‘woodsy days’ as they’re known at Skelton. In preparation I read outdoor craft books to find new and interesting activities that groups won’t have done before. A woodsy day means spending the majority of our time in the woods at the far side of the Skelton Grange site. On a typical woodsy day, me and the other volunteers will fill the trailers take them across the site, then get back to the main building with just enough time to put out Giant Jenga before the group arrives….

A typical volunteering day

It’s a gorgeous day for late October. When the day’s group of young people arrive we play some quick get-to-know-you games, then we grab our lunches and coats and head off to the woods. There’s always the chance of a storm at Skelton so we challenge them to build some shelters, and warn them they need to be waterproof. Whilst they make tepees and a-frames and lean-tos, we fill up the water pistols to create a ‘localised storm.’

We hustle the groups into their shelters one at a time and the ‘storm’ erupts over the woods. There’s a lot of laughing and screaming as the water ricochets off the tarps, but everyone emerges dry! After the ‘storm’ has passed, it’s time for lunch and everyone enjoys eating in their shelter.

When everyone’s been fed and energised, we play some games. This allows everyone to let off some steam before we settle down for an afternoon of crafts (or ‘crafternoon’). We always bring the craft boxes down so people can do free crafting.

At the end of the afternoon the group have some beautiful things to take home with them, made from the natural resources in the woods. We make sure they’ve got everything, then have to say goodbye. Afterwards it’s tidying time. We take down shelters and transport everything back up to the centre. Mops and brooms come out, and we make the place shine.

Usually, that would be it for the day. However it’s Halloween week so it is not a normal week…

This is zombie week.

Make-up arrives at 4pm. Costumes are laid out. Roles are revised.

Skelton Grange Conservation Centre has become the Skelton Grange Research Centre and for the next three nights up to 180 people will be involved in a zombie role-play – following a trail around the site, hunting for a missing person and encountering all kinds of crazy characters in the dark. The interactive experience is planned and manned by volunteers and tickets have been on sale to the public for weeks.

And my role? I get to play one of the crazy characters, scaring people as they walk past. When I surprise people I have no idea why they’re nervous and out of breath – I just get into character and guide them through to their next encounter.

Lots of groups come round the centre in one night and arrive around fifteen minutes apart. It’s quite demanding because my area needs restoring to its original state before the next group reaches us, but as the night goes on the reset-up gets easier and I have a lot of fun with the guests. I’d never have thought I would have been polishing my acting skills when I applied for the role in May.

When the last group leaves the chamber at 9pm I’ve been on the go for 12 hours, but it’s not over yet. The room gets reset one last time, ready for tomorrow, and I stumble through to the break room where a horde of zombies are demolishing sausage sandwiches. My stomach’s rumbling and I can’t wait to demolish one myself.

We share tales of the night’s happenings, and revel in how many people we managed to scare. It’s an amazingly surreal experience talking to your friends when they’ve been made-up to look like their faces are peeling off.

There’s one final push to un-zombiefy the rooms we need for normal working hours tomorrow before everyone starts to head home to get some sleep before another 9am start. It’s been a long, gruelling day, but we’re all leaving with smiles on our faces.

So is volunteering worth it?

Absolutely! Working at Skelton Grange has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I’ve really enjoyed teaching and leading groups of young people, so much so that I’m now looking for jobs that will allow me to continue doing that. It was also fun getting the chance to flex my creative muscles and write press releases that showcase all the fantastic events run at Skelton. Perhaps best of all, I’ve met some amazing people who have helped me realise my potential.

A big thanks to Gemma for taking the time to share her experience of volunteering with us.

If you’re interested in taking up volunteering in Leeds and don’t know where to start, the Doing Good Leeds website is a fantastic resource, with information on jobs, training and volunteering roles that are available across the city. For more information, see: http://doinggoodleeds.org.uk/

What are your experiences of volunteering and community work in Leeds? Why not let us know on Twitter @child_leeds, or by leaving a comment below… 

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