31 January 2006
by Sarah Campbell
Volunteering changed my life.” Jon Snow, the Channel Four News presenter, is unequivocal about his year as a teacher in a Ugandan village: “I was pretty conservative, with a very narrow view of the world. The experience made me more passionate and probably contributed to me wanting to be a journalist.”
Snow was in the last intake of pre-university Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) recruits, before the organization stopped sending untrained youngsters to remote places to teach. His year teaching in a school on the banks of the Nile in Uganda was his first taste of volunteering, which would become a constant throughout his adulthood.
Once back in the UK he wanted to do VSO again, only to find that it wasn’t possible to do it twice. He started working for New Horizons Youth Centre in 1970 and has been involved with the charity ever since, becoming chair in 1986. “That is my main experience of volunteering,” he says.
New Horizons works with young homeless people in King’s Cross, an area of London notorious for its vice. One of the charity’s successful schemes is the Women’s Open Space, where the charity’s offices are opened to allow women sex workers to have a break and a shower, and for the charity’s staff to engage with them and to help them to try to get out of prostitution.
Provision of this sort of essential community and social service is where the voluntary sector is at its most effective, Snow says. “In the community you can harness the local resources. I see volunteering as an infection — it starts somewhere and is brought into a community where it grows. It’s organic.” But voluntary organisations should stick to what they’re good at: “I can’t see the sector holding the keys to prisons. But they do valuable work in the prisons, in education and drama, for example.”
Snow is also adamant that volunteering should remain on a local scale. Some voluntary organisations are beginning to resemble corporations, he says. “When New Horizons started we shared an office with another homeless charity called Centrepoint. Now they have become something of an arm of the state. I think they have mimicked state provision, which isn’t to denigrate state provision or what they do. It’s just that scale doesn’t provide the best services.”
It is up to the state to provide the resources and for voluntary organisations to tap into those resources. Smaller, local organisations have the local expertise to work with the people in their community. “The welfare state has recognised its limits,” he says. “When I started out, local authorities and the state were shirty about the involvement of voluntary organisations in the provision of services. They saw us as the safety net rather than the main provider. Now they turn to us straight away.”
Snow compèred at the Community Service Volunteers (CSV) Year of the Volunteer Awards ceremony on January 22. “The Year of the Volunteer has raised awareness and participation,” he says. “At New Horizons we’ve had a huge increase in interest. In this day of iPods, e-mail and mobile phones, you feel cut off from the people among whom you live and it has got people thinking about what they can put back (into society).”
As he attests, the experience stays with you forever. In December Snow made a documentary on malaria, that was shown this month. “The village where I worked has become a badly infected malarial area and I went back to the school where I taught. I met two of the boys I used to teach,” he says, emphasising that given the life expectancy of the area that was an achievement in itself. “They reminded me of things I’d said in classes and had very vivid memories of me and my lessons. I’d thought it was a meagre and useless offering, but we underestimate the importance of volunteering.”