I recently carried out a very brief experiment to see how many times in a day I could give my money or time a cause. On my walk to university, I passed four charity shops, all of which permanently need money and volunteers; I received an average of two emails a day asking me to donate or sign a petition; Facebook and Twitter were full of individuals doing incredible fundraising events with links to a JustGiving page. I have been one of those trying desperately to find the happy medium of raising as much money as possible while not annoying those around me – it is an infuriating and rewarding process that was almost as tricky as the marathon itself (#humblebrag).
With so many opportunities to give to good causes, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. As a nation, we are pretty good at giving money to charity, but less generous with our time. According to the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), the amount of money donated in 2017 increased, but the number of people giving has fallen, and generally less than 20% of us have volunteered at some point in the last 12 months. In our online world, it is easy to donate online or sign a quick petition. This online activism, or clicktivism, is often scoffed at but it is a crucial part of modern activism – Gina Martin’s upskirting campaign is a brilliant demonstration of how effective it can be. But there is still a need for good, old-fashioned volunteering. A donation cannot lobby MPs. A petition cannot run a shop. A hashtag cannot train as a coastguard.
Apart from a brief stint at the National Trust to get my Bronze DofE – which I am still yet to complete – I am as idle as the next woman when it comes to volunteering. But five months ago, a tiny bundle arrived in my life which convinced me that I can no longer get away with signing the occasional petition. After a bout of Multiple Sclerosis that led to substantial sight loss, my mum has always been interested in training guide dogs. This April that abstract interest materialised into a very real black and gold ball of fluff called Zoe, who collects dirty socks, can never refuse a puddle and patiently waits at the top of stairs. She bops smaller dogs on the nose, inhales her food and is learning to guide someone along a street. My mum walks her every day in her very important blue coat and we all take great delight in explaining that she is a guide dog puppy, and can therefore go wherever she damn well pleases.
For a whole year, the Woodhead world will be controlled by the demands of a creature who barks at her own reflection, before she hopefully goes to continue her training at Guide Dog school. Of course we will miss her more than I ever thought possible. Of course there is a chance that she won’t make it – guide dogs fail for all sorts of reasons. The hours of work that my mum has spent teaching her, worrying about her and loving her may result instead in a gorgeous therapy dog or even just an adoring addition to another family. But a couple of months ago, a partially sighted little boy and his mum stopped us in the street to enquire about the process and say hello to Zoe. Tiny hands followed the curve of her spine, prodded her oversized paws and brushed her mad-professor eyebrows, building a picture of Zoe through touch instead of sight. As they left, his mum explained to him that one day, he would get a dog like that. A dog who could lead him through life, explore countless opportunities with him and anchor him in a world that is constantly unfamiliar and hostile to those without sight.
It is encounters like this that have convinced me that by helping to train Zoe, my mum is contributing something immeasurable to society. Volunteering takes time, it can be boring and unrewarding. It is easy to feel that a day spent behind the counter of a charity shop, a weekend spent sweeping leaves, or a year spent walking a dog is only a drop in an enormous pond. We are constantly asking ourselves ‘what about x cause, what about y cause’ and it can stop us from committing to anything. But by committing to Zoe we have made a definitive impact. We are all able to make a difference, and Zoe has shown me that however small the drop is, you are still a part of that pond.