An informal conversation and guide to the sometimes confusing world of volunteering.

Not all doom and gloom

Yes it's January. Yes it's awful weather. And yes it seems like an eternity since last pay day.

So, in a quest to spread a little happiness I thought I’d share something with you that might cheer up your day, as it did mine.

I met one of our volunteers last week. An amazing person who mentors a young person recovering from mental health issues, providing the type of support a medical professional or a family member might not be able to.

They meet for coffee; they go to museums - nothing amazing in that I hear you say? But that’s just the point - something as simple as meeting for a coffee and a chat can make a massive difference to someone's life. Having someone who's not paid to be there and is chosing to spend time with them is invaluable.

And it's a win-win situation. The young person's confidence has grown and she now does things she wouldn't have done a few months ago - life changing things some take for granted like going out after dark or using  public transport.  And our volunteer benefits from her experience too, doing things she wouldn’t normally do, improving her listening skills and learning more about mental illness.

So yes, when you volunteer you might not change the world but you might change somebody's world and surely that's worth smiling about?

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It's not just charity shops who need donated clothes

piles of clothes © chuckp on flickrIf there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a hoarder. I hate mess, I hate clutter. I hate it when my flatmate leaves the Sunday paper on the table until Friday. (Flatmate: ‘I might read the motoring section.’ Me: ‘Before next Sunday?’ Flatmate: ‘Maybe.’) Might and maybe are indecisive no’s in my eyes. ‘Will you marry me?’ ‘Maybe.’ Case closed. No one needs to rush out to buy a new hat.

So when I went home over Christmas and my Mum asked me to help her clear out the loft, I agreed. Admittedly quite reluctantly, no one likes sifting through a life’s worth of junk least of all in a loft which only has half a floor. (My dad put his foot through the ceiling when he was laying it and never finished the job.) I agreed on one condition. This was to be a cull; an unsentimental, no just in cases, de-junk. No Mum, I don’t want to keep the boots that never fitted me in the first place, or the reversible jumper from when I was 9 (although I secretly wished I could still fit into it).

Fast forward a couple of hours, cull complete, bin liners brimming with bounty, my sister rocks up. (Nice escape sis, planned some might say) and asks what we’re planning to do with all the bags of old clothes. Charity shop we reply. Standard response, or so I thought.

My sister works for Next Link which provides specialist domestic abuse services for women and children in Bristol and Bath. One of the services is a safe house for women and children who have fled their homes. Often they leave with what they have on them at the time. No wallet, no phone, no house keys, no nothing. My sister asked us to give the clothes to her to take back with her so the centre can offer a change of clothes to the women in their safe houses. So next time you’re having a clear out, think about donating your old or unwanted clothing to your nearest domestic violence service. Find your nearest one here.

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Glimmer of hope

coinsYesterday, a young boy named Kiki  trapped in rubble for eight days following the Haitian earthquake has been pulled out alive and well.

But it's a rare glimpse of happiness in a place filled with desperation and despair.  With a lack of food, water and medicine the people of Haiti need your help.

 So if you don't have time to volunteer to fundraise just give your money.

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Micro-volunteer for Haiti

Extraordinaries HaitiThe Extraordinaries, a USA based site are currently running a campaign for virtual micro volunteers to help in the Haiti disaster. Virtual micro-volunteering is where people can take on small tasks that they can do via a smart-phone or computer. It uses the concept of crowdsourcing to break a task into smaller chunks so that many people can contribute to completing the larger goal.

The Extraordinaries Haiti Support Centre is attempting to harness the power of the crowd to help locate and identify missing persons with just a few minutes of your time.

There are two ways you can get involved. The first is by looking at news images from the disaster and tagging them. The second is comparing the news images with photographs of missing people that have been submitted to find possible matches.

Aware that micro-volunteering is still in it's early days I had a go at both tagging and matching on the Extraordinaries. I know my thoughts - why not give it a go, and let me know what you think.

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Retail Therapy

oxfam newDalston Oxfam ©patrick47cullenThanks to initiatives such as 'Donate Don't Dump' it seems charity shops are shedding the stuffy, scruffy image they once had.

No longer just outlets for moth-eaten cardigans and scratched Cliff Richard records, many charity shops are stepping up their game and getting on-trend with vintage clothes and classic records, retaining the sustainable, eco-friendly ethos which made them great in the first place.

I recently spent a day volunteering at Oxfam in Dalston - one of the hippest charity shops of the moment, so hip they even have a Twitter account! It was really exciting to be granted access to the cavernous bowels of the shop where volunteers sort through the donations - a treasure trove of cameras, hats, jewelry and even a unicycle! Also, having worked in retail in the past it was nice to think that this time round all the cash I was racking up on the till was going to a good cause. So, next time you see a sign up in your local charity shop advertising for volunteers, give it a go, you might be surprised.

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Help the homeless

Homeless © ehow.comAs I complained about my frozen toes this morning I stopped to think about how lucky I was to have warmth and shelter to go home to tonight.

These cold but oh so pretty snow days are actually life threatening conditions for our country’s homeless. I know that the homeless charity I volunteer at is going that extra mile to ensure it gets more people off the streets and into some warmth.

Normally their night centre sees up to 40 people but over the last couple of weeks that number has over doubled. That means that night shelters like theirs are in extra need of volunteers.

If you want to help the homeless get out of the cold visit  Crisis for details of a drop in centre near you.

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Your top 10

10I don't know about you but it seemed as though over the festive period (which seems ages away now) there was one countdown after another. From best film to  funniest comedy moments and everything in between.

So, we’re going one better. We’ve compiled the top 10 volunteering opportunities of 2009 that were featured in  our newsletter and that our volunteers were most interested in. Take a look .

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Can volunteering help you get a job?

Depends on who you ask.Loughborough University careers centre @ flickrOur surveys reveal  that approximately half of  TimeBank volunteers claim that volunteering experience helped them secure a job, and that 84% of employers agree that volunteering is a way to find work.  The Institute of Volunteering Research concludes that there's strong belief in the value of volunteering as a direct route into work but there's little hard evidence.

So what's your experience? Is volunteering valued by employers or is it seen as the poor relation to paid work? I tend to add it to the end of my CV, listing it below my paid work. But it's the unpaid volunteering that's given me some of my strongest skills.

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