Originally published in Essex Millenium Volunteers Newsletter in 2006.

Volunteering, as we would understand today, essentially started in the 19th century with the Victorians ideas on charity. As they believed the individual was responsible for his own fate, the welfare system simply did not exist, and many were left to fend for themselves. However, kind hearted souls, rather more in tune with the Christian message than their peers, couldn’t bear to watch the suffering of their fellow man, and set up various societies to help them. The oldest is probably the St Vincent de Paul society, which helps Catholics in their hour of need by supplying them with essentials to live. Many societies were set up with a view to preaching the Gospel to the lowly and downtrodden. However, despite this, many people were helped and supported with the help of these societies, supplying education, clothing and food, and staffed entirely by volunteers.

As we entered the 20th century, the liberal reforms of the 1900s helped many people in trouble, but as these covered only a relatively small percentage of the population, volunteers were still needed to care in so many ways for their fellow peers, from soup kitchens, to agitating for women’s rights.

The 1950s saw the establishment of the welfare state, which has grown in leaps and bounds ever since. As a result, few of us will ever be completely without food, shelter, or the bare minimum needed for living. However, it is now the little things that are left by the state, and ignored by a large section of the general population, such as the voluntary toenail cutting service for the elderly, the blood donation service, without which our healthcare system would fall, and the Samaritans, who help countless numbers of people every year, simply by being there for people feeling totally alone.

The importance of the volunteer has now diminished through the centuries, only the role has changed. It is now possible to volunteer to help in whatever cause motivates you most, be it the environment, human rights, or disabled children. Everywhere, there are people in need, and charities needing extra help. And with Millennium Volunteers offering you an award for doing what you enjoy, what reason could you have not want to take up a fun and rewarding vocation?