Catching up with Volunteer of the Year 2015 Matt Cullen

Matt Cullen, Volunteer with Swords Tidy Towns has volunteered for over 40 years. Last year, he was named Volunteer of the Year 2015. He tells us what winning the award meant to him and why he thinks volunteering is so important.

Winning Volunteer of the Year Award for 2015 was one of the best experiences of my life, it meant so much to me and in the aftermath of the event it led to very positive experiences never to be forgotten, which I will return to later.

First of all, to focus on the Volunteer of the Year event itself, although I was doing voluntary work for the last forty years (the last ten years with Swords Tidy Towns,) I never thought of being rewarded for such activities. It came as a complete surprise that STT had nominated me for the award. So I felt truly honoured and somewhat overcome by the kindness shown by all. To win the Christine Buckley Volunteer of the Year Award, who previously won volunteer of the year award meant so much to me in view of the wonderful work Christine did for abused women.

At the award ceremony itself, I was somewhat humbled by the voluntary work that those nominated were engaged in throughout the country. To my mind, each nominated volunteer were winners in their own right and it was a pleasure to talk to some of them about the work they are doing. It was uplifting to hear from some that their enthusiasm was not dampened by family health difficulties, if anything, it spurned me on to continue my voluntary work with Swords Tidy Towns despite my own health difficulties. To explain what I mean by that, maybe it is worthwhile pointing out that I have a terminal illness called Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, (which means scarring of the lungs with no known cause) also Rheumatoid Arthritis and COPD, which at times makes it difficult for me to carry out the voluntary work in the manner that I would like to do. Winning volunteer of the year award has meant that more people are aware of both what I do and my health issues. Consequently, the kindness, positivity and encouragement from Swords Tidy Towns, Volunteer Ireland, Irish Lung Fibrosis Association, family, relations and friends has given me an added boost since winning the award.

Reflecting on what it meant for me to win the award, I can see how my own skills and knowledge can be put to good use. For example, I love art, gardening and meeting people. So with Swords Tidy Towns whether it is revamping signs, (Swords Garda Station,) installing flower beds/weeding and meeting with STT volunteers all link with my interests. So it is a labour of love rather than a chore. In addition to it being interesting work, it is very uplifting to see the work that I am doing acknowledged by so many people. After the award ceremony it was great to receive calls and letters from local politicians offering their congratulations, likewise, from the media, (both newspapers and TV,) Fingal County Council, Education Training Board, Irish Lung Fibrosis Association and especially Swords Tidy Towns who nominated me.

As mention earlier, since winning the award it has made me more aware of the work other volunteers are doing such as the Aislinn Centre. Subsequent to the volunteer of the year event, I have visited the Aislinn Centre a few times and I fully acknowledge the great work they do.

I never gave much thought into the volunteering work I do until the event itself. Thinking about it has helped me to see the value of volunteering not just for me but collectively how voluntary work plays an important role in helping others throughout Ireland. So much so, I would encourage anyone to get involved in volunteering, no matter how small the time you may have, it is an invaluable asset that can help your own well being as well as known that your work does make a difference. With that in mind, one key learning point from winning the award was that the volunteering work I was doing (and continue to do,) does make a difference, a view endorsed by all involved in the event , Volunteer Ireland , family, relations and friends, making it a wonderful experience I will cherish for a long time to come.

Volunteering at Rio 2016

Mary O’Leary was one of a handful of Irish volunteers at last month’s Rio Olympics. Having volunteered as a Games Maker at London 2012 she wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to have another unique experience. Here, she shares her story with us.

I just want to share some thoughts on my volunteer experience at the Rio Olympics 2016. I made the decision to go to Rio as I had such an amazing experience as a Games Maker in London 2012 and wanted to use my experience to support Rio in making the first Latin American Olympics a success. I volunteer in sports on a regular basis anything from local 5k run to bigger events but there is something special about volunteering in the Olympics. It feels like being in a bubble where positive energy takes over and everyone is looking for a good experience and supporting each other.

The journey to being accepted and offered a role in the Olympics takes time- filling in an application form, taking part in group Skype interview, waiting for acceptance and then confirmation of role takes about 18months but so worth the wait. My role was with the Press Tribune team at the weightlifting event and I loved every minute of it – not something I thought I’d say about weightlifting in the past – but that’s the beauty of volunteering for a sport you know nothing about and have no previous interest in. You end up with respect for the sport & the athletes involved. My work involved ensuring the press were sitting in the correct places, had all the resources they required and supporting them to carry out their job. I also facilitated at the press conferences after the events and also helped journalists in the Mixed Zone when they wanted specific interviews with athletes. My team came from all over the world (in total 11 different countries) which was fantastic and I have made some great friends as a result of our time spent together. There is something great about working in a team who come together and share the unique experience of the Olympics. The crowds attending weightlifting are just wonderful all loud, cheering every athlete on and wanting everyone to do well. The screaming and stamping of feet needs to be experienced to believe – it’s unforgettable!

I have so many happy memories from seeing Usain Bolt  at the airport, the Gold medallist one night giving me his phone to take his photo, the silver medallist asking to have his photo taken with the volunteers but it’s the conversations with people on the journey to and from the events which was the most rewarding. Locals thanking us for coming to support Rio, athletes talking about their experience of the Games to other volunteers and their stories. You meet strangers and say ‘hello, where are you from?’ and then the conversation flows, it’s just brilliant. The sunrise in the morning and sunset going home made the journeys to and from my venue so beautiful.

It took time to settle into the travel arrangements in Rio but easy to understand once the journey had been completed. It was important to be aware of where all the venues were as once you put on the volunteer uniform everyone assumes you know everything about the Olympics so it was important to be prepared for the questions! The days can be long and tiring but the rewards of what you get back and the wonderful feedback make up for this. Rio was also a great holiday destination and we had time to visit the local sites and also attend some of the sporting events.

It is great to volunteer at the Olympics but also important to support grass roots sports and volunteer at our local clubs. This is where all athletes start out and also where the community spirit starts. If you are unsure where to start just ask your local clubs if they need any help. It doesn’t matter if you do not know the sport, we all have transferable skills and as long as we have a positive attitude and want to contribute to the success of an event be it local or a global event our help is needed and appreciated.

Another volunteering event has come to an end for me but what wonderful new friends I have made, I helped to support the success of weightlifting at Rio Games and have just wonderful happy memories of another exciting Olympics. The Olympics are a great opportunity to showcase volunteering as well as having a great adventure.

As my team leader said ”Mary it was great to have you in the team! Thanks for your effort, support and nice persons make a good team’- this makes it all worthwhile.