Volunteers made the Games happen!

That was the message delivered to me and my 69,999 other team members at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. I had the privilege to be one of the 70,000 Gamesmakers for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and part of the biggest UK volunteer workforce assembled in peace time.

The closing ceremony was the end of a long and emotional journey and as the torch was extinguished it was time for me to hang up my fetching red and purple baseball cap and say goodbye to one of the best times of my life.

My journey was most definitely a marathon not a sprint. It didn’t start on my first shift, or at my various training days, or in the East London warehouse where I picked up my uniform and accreditation back in May. It didn’t start back in December 2011 when I got the email saying my interview had been successful, or back in July 2011 when I had my interview. It didn’t even start in September 2010 when I swam across the tide of negative energy surrounding the London Games and submitted my application to become an Olympic volunteer.

It started over 12 years ago at High School when I was voted my form’s Charity Representative (for the second time – not to be big headed!) and I organised a 'Stars in their Eyes' competition for Breast Cancer Care. Amid the various renditions of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ and Backstreet Boy dance routines, I knew I had found something I love to do…Volunteering. Since then I have rarely stopped volunteering. I have delivered drama workshops for kids, organised a ton of fundraiser events, coached trampolining, taught school children in Honduras and shaken a lot of buckets. The majority of these opportunities I took part in whilst working full time and having a hectic social life. This has been a struggling balancing act but has always been worth it. I call my volunteering roles “opportunities” because as well as making a difference to others; I’ve got to have the most amazing experiences myself.

I feel like I’ve blown a volunteering secret, and now the other 19.8 million people who volunteer in the UK will mob me for letting everyone else know what they’re missing out on. Though I think the success of the London 2012 Games and the attitude towards the Gamesmakers have already turned public opinion on volunteering. I know that at TimeBank we have received volunteer applications that specifically mention the Olympics as the inspiration for wanting to volunteer. The Gamesmakers helped people to realise that giving up your time free of charge is hard work but can be full of rewards. By this, I don’t mean the obvious rewards that everyone thinks of, like getting to watch the action in the venues or meeting the athletes. I would say the majority of Gamesmakers never saw any action (unless they had bought tickets) and only a tiny percentage got to shake hands with the likes of Usain Bolt.

The Gamesmakers who greeted spectators with a smile (and sometimes song and dance) didn’t get free seats to the action. The Gamesmakers who were based in an East London warehouse from April to July, giving out uniform and accreditation, didn’t get entry to the Olympic Park or hang out with Chris Hoy. But they still volunteered for a minimum of seven hours per shift, still travelled across London (sometimes across the whole of the UK) and still went home with sore legs and hoarse throats.

The rewards I’m talking about are meeting amazing people. As a Gamesmaker I got to meet some great people I genuinely hope to stay in touch with, and with reunions already planned I believe that will be the case. There’s an atmosphere created in a volunteering team that can’t be recreated elsewhere. I’ve been a paid steward for major sporting and public events and the buzz and camaraderie isn’t the same. The satisfaction and relief after volunteering for a fundraising event is so much greater than what I’ve experienced as a paid member of staff at similar events. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t feel as special.

The biggest reward, though, is being able to say “I was there. I made it happen.” I will tell my grandkids about my time volunteering for London 2012, and how I helped to make it the massive success it has been.  If you were a greeter who made a spectator smile, or a press volunteer (like me) who made a journalist’s experience (and consequently their reporting) of the Games that much better, it all adds up. I know I was a tiny cog in a massive machine. I could have stopped turning and it wouldn’t have made a difference. But if we all stopped turning, there wouldn’t have been a London 2012.

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) put the Games in the hand of volunteers and we delivered it… with a smile.