Volunteering is a great thing to do for so many reasons. From gaining new skills, making new friends, growing in confidence, there are lots of reasons why choosing to volunteer can bring so many benefits. Sixteen year old Erin who has Asperger's syndrome, and who helps to look after her sister who has type one diabetes, has written a blog post on her experience volunteering.
Hello. My name is Erin. I am sixteen years old, and I have Asperger’s syndrome, which puts me on the autistic spectrum. Given that I am someone who has no aspirations to go into veterinary sciences or to work with animals, it may seem slightly odd that I decided to volunteer at a Falconry Centre. But (generally) I do like animals and this seemed a reasonable opportunity to do some work experience.
I was actually meant to do work experience at the centre for a week in August (my school runs an activities week at the end of the year and year eleven are advised to ﬁnd work experience). I arranged mine through email - I had visited the falconry with my family on a number of occasions prior, and on one visit we enquired about work experience. Following that, I got in touch with the director Naomi through email, and it was arranged. Then COVID hit and cancelled the whole activities week. When I enquired about rescheduling, Naomi suggested that once I turned
sixteen, I could volunteer there properly, and so I took up the oﬀer. Now, every Sunday, I volunteer at the West of England Falconry at Newton St Loe. I was first introduced to the other volunteers, and assigned to shadowing one volunteer, Beth, who was very friendly. I was shown how to prepare food for the birds and helped clean out a few aviaries. To my surprise, in the afternoon, Naomi took me out ﬂying Neo, the centre’s common buzzard. I was given a hawking bag, a pot of food, and a glove, and we walked out to the ﬁelds. Naomi carried Neo on her ﬁst as we walked out there. The thing about Naomi is that she gives good, clear instructions. She has to be ﬁrm and explicit, because you have to do certain things to make sure the bird is calm. She told me - ‘stand in front of me there so Neo can see you’.
That’s a rule I can then follow so I know where to stand. She says ‘stand still’ or ‘go over there’ and I can follow her instructions, because there’s no vagueness because it’s not about being polite or anything, it’s about what the bird needs. If the bird needs you to back oﬀ, you get told to back oﬀ, without any faﬃng about, which was good for me. Flying Neo was a great experience. I followed Naomi's instructions and immediately began learning about the personality of Neo, who is a bit of a scaredy-cat. Then we went back to the centre.
Learning new skills
Shadowing volunteer Beth was perfect, because I watched everything she did for several days before I began doing it myself, and then for several days after that I had her speciﬁcally watching over me, oﬀering guidance and reassurance. Part of my Asperger's means that I have very low self-conﬁdence, and feel a lot better if I have someone I trust conﬁrming that my actions are correct.
There are also no stupid questions when you are new - I ask the same questions again and again, and they are answered. And it’s okay that I ask silly questions from time to time, because I know that what I am doing is important for the safety of the birds, so I can’t risk not asking the question and getting it wrong. It kind of defeats that anxiety about asking silly questions when you know that the harm in asking is always so much less than the potential harm in not asking. It helps you to get over that indecision.
After a few weeks, I was entrusted to mind the oﬃce and interact with customers, I was initially a bit nervous: my Asperger's means that I have a lot of anxiety and that I ﬁnd it hard to understand social cues. Naomi talked me through how to do everything - how to operate the card machine, where we kept the change, where to write down the takings etc. - and I watched and listened to Beth going through it several times. You always open with the same line, ‘Would you like to see some birds today?’ and then you follow the steps in response to that.
I think because it’s quite formulaic, I was able to get on with it, and still feel safe and comfortable. I also think that because I had time to get accustomed to the environment (where things were in the oﬃce, etc.), and comfortable with the other volunteers around me, it made it easier to talk to customers. And in any case there was usually someone else nearby who was supporting me if I didn't know the answer to something.
Personally, I still prefer to just prep the food for the birds in the back or even clean out aviaries, but I can interact with customers if needed, which is the important thing - I often conﬂate ‘I don’t like doing X/I ﬁnd X uncomfortable’ with ‘I can’t do X’ - and it’s good to remember that they aren’t the same. (Recently I had a minor crisis where I was feeling bad because I couldn’t take the bus whereas other people my age could - I had to remind myself that yes I can take the bus - just because I ﬁnd it diﬃcult doesn’t mean that I can’t do it.)
Sometimes when it gets busy and I want to keep myself from getting overstimulated, I will retreat to the back (and of course I make sure there is someone else to mind the oﬃce). I like the birds better than customers. With birds, and with animals in general, you don’t have to mask, and they don’t judge you for not making eye contact (note: just like with people, I also instinctively avoid eye contact with animals).
Birds are good as well, because although they can be noisy, they usually make a consistent noise - so even when they are loud, they are still fairly predictable, and therefore they don’t unnerve me.
Also I think that when you're with animals, most of your concentration is on that animal, especially when it’s a bird of prey. There’s no room in your brain for anything except how you are treating the bird, and so I ﬁnd that it’s a good kind of mindfulness, a way to ﬁll your head with something else for a while. There’s no room to be anxious about people when you have a bird on your ﬁst - the bird takes up all your attention, which is good for me. In a similar way to exercise, it provides a mental reset, a time to clear your head by ﬁlling it with one thing only.
Overall, volunteering is incredibly rewarding, and I feel that it’s helped to build my resilience as well as self-conﬁdence. Working in the falconry centre has been a good opportunity to make new friends and it’s fun to work with people you wouldn’t normally talk to - most of the volunteers are several years older than me, and so it’s been interesting and useful to hear about their experiences.
If you're interested in volunteering, why not try volunteering for us? Contact us here to find out what you can get involved in. Or, do-it.org has volunteering opportunities from different charities and organisations.
Thank you to Erin for sharing her experience with us!