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.

Sign up for our quarterly newsletter and stay up to date with all things volunteering.