Most people miss this big reason why volunteering can be so life-transforming.

There’s a value to being a volunteer that you may have never thought of. I certainly hadn’t – until I saw the impact of Philip, in his 80s, on Jack, a troubled 12 year old.

It was an eye-opener. And I hope it will open your eyes too.

Oasis, the charity I founded and lead, had become responsible for a secondary school on a tough housing estate. Tough enough to have had a long history of having to exclude some of its most troubled and even violent students. Of which Jack was one.

Meanwhile, the elderly Philip was a member of a Methodist church in the same local community; a church which had closed due to declining attendance. However, Oasis had negotiated to use the building as an ‘inclusion base’ from Monday to Friday.

It’s an approach we often use to help students like Jack. Those who have suffered the trauma of neglect; who can’t function in a regular classroom due to their unsocial and sometimes violent behaviour and mood swings.

On offer was ‘sanctuary’ – an alternative educational provision for a small group of the most troubled students needing a calm and soothing environment. Every morning, instead of attending the main school building, they showed up at our new inclusion space.

It was on one of these mornings I dropped in to see how things were going. Where an Oasis staff member introduced me to Jack – who wouldn’t look into my eyes.

Later I learned the young man had a very difficult and complex family background, struggled with sudden mood swings and with a chronic inability to maintain attention.

A few minutes later Philip, a volunteer in his mid-80s, arrived. He came for an hour or so a couple of times a week to help things run smoothly.

I watched intrigued as the anti-social and disruptive Jack sauntered over to meet Philip – someone from an entirely different planet. Philip smiled. The normally surly Jack smiled back. They shook hands and walked off together to the kitchen.

I watched amazed and intrigued as Philip made them both a cup of tea. They sat and chatted for a while. Then wandered to the pool table where Jack set the game out and Philip handed him a cue.

As they played, an Oasis staff member whispered into my ear. ‘Philip’s great player. He will win. The problem is Jack has a history of not being able to cope with defeat. He finds it humiliating. He’s quite capable of switching suddenly and lashing out. But, just you watch.’

And, so it was. Philip – the aged Methodist – potted ball after ball until all that remained was to sink the black for victory. I watched as he hit it perfectly and it gently rolled into a corner pocket.

I waited for the reaction from Jack that seemed inevitable. But it didn’t come.

Instead of flying into a temper, Jack smiled. ‘Well done’, I heard him mutter. Walking round the table, Philip put his arm around the lad’s shoulder and with a smile said, ‘You’re getting good at this – it won’t be long before it’s me having to congratulate you.’

Then, with more tea in hand, they heading for a computer to work on a ‘catch-up’ literacy programme for Jack.

‘It’s just amazing’, our staff member told me. ‘I just can’t believe how far Jack has come in such a short time. It is a miracle.’

But, of course, it wasn’t a miracle. The miracle was Philip together with the reason his interventions were so important and powerful for Jack. The secret was that Philip was a volunteer. An amateur rather than a professional who was there because it was their job.

Before my eyes the penny had dropped.

In Jack’s world the only ones ever to give him any attention were professionals; those who were paid to be with him. Teachers, social workers, youth workers, counsellors and therapists.

But Philip was different. Philip was there – and there consistently – simply because he chose to be. No one was paying him. And that was what had such a huge impact on Jack.

Someone wanted to be with him.

Someone wanted to spend time with him.

Someone had chosen to invest in him. Not for any gain – but just for the sake of it.

For Jack this was transformational. It was literally rewiring his brain; restructuring his thinking. And that’s what can make volunteering so powerful in the lives of those being served.

If you are already a volunteer, then I hope this opens your eyes to the surprising added impact of what you are doing. And, if you have yet to volunteer, here’s one more reason to do so.

Volunteerism is powerful. It is the key to building healthy communities.

The word ‘amateur’, of course, comes from the French and means literally ‘lover of’. It originally refers to someone who pursues an activity simply for to love of it; their motivation being nothing beyond the joy of involvement – and in Philip’s case that was to serve another. Our society desperately needs many more amateurs!

Here, however, is the final twist. As Jesus put it so famously: ‘When you do it for the least of these, you do it for me.’

As an old proverb says, ‘God’s appearance changes. Blessed are those who can recognise him in any disguise’. I know Philip would agree.

Steve Chalke MBE

For links to volunteering opportunities – and some inspiration – see the AfterWorkNet webpages on Volunteering in Your Community. And if you have experiences to contribute, do share them here or with our Facebook group. Thank you.

Steve is a British Baptist minister and the founder of Oasis Charitable Trust which works in 36 UK communities through partnerships, projects, services and initiatives. He enjoys the joy of running and the pain of supporting Crystal Palace football club.


  1. A beautiful account, but Mr C. misses the point. There were other volunteers in the room/scheme, but it was the older man Jack could relate to. I’ve no doubt it’s because the older man, Philip, had the seniors’ qualities of patience, non-judgementalism, experience and wisdom. Also, because of his age he was outside the usual, destructive group Jack usually had to contend with. It’s the same with Street Pastors and youngsters. And there was a scheme couple of years ago where pensioners befriending disruptive youngsters in a failing school helped them turn their behaviour around. Saved the kids and the school.

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