Carmen Nasr is the volunteer coordinator at the Hackney Pirates Ship, a charity working to develop the literacy, confidence and perseverance of young people in Hackney.
She’s the first person to greet you when you go for your volunteering session and it’s likely she’ll carry a laptop with her and a piece of paper with the names of the people that are going to join you that day.
Volunteering at The Hackney Pirates is my first long term experience of this kind and spending the time reading and working with the kids is helping me as much as it’s helping them, for they are great teachers that need not be underestimated.
As it happens to many things that get my interest, I was curious to learn more about volunteering from the perspective of someone who’s there on a daily basis and Carmen was kind enough to give me a bit of her time. Below, our conversation.
Listen to audio excerpt
Have you done any volunteering before The Hackney Pirates?
This is going to sound really bad, not a lot. I’ve done bits and pieces when I was in the university and a couple years after I graduated, while I was looking for work. I think I did volunteering to improve my career rather than for any sort of greater good.
So I did things like running workshops with kids, I helped out drama clubs and things like that. Then about three years ago I volunteered in Calais, a refugee camp. Before I started working here I was a teacher of English as a foreign language at a language school. I also speak Arabic because I’m half Lebanese and I grew up in Beirut and there was a real need for arabic speakers at the camp, but also for anyone to just help. I also felt really passionate about the fact that people were being held in this makeshift camp in Europe, in a place where we’re supposed to have assistance processes for avoiding that. So that was the first time I volunteered really seriously.
So how did that experience affect your life, did it have any impact on you?
I went over there not knowing what to expect. Professional organisations are not aloud to volunteer there because it exists as illegal and you don’t have, let’s say, Unicef or Save the children. So there’s not really anyone in charge and you got lots of different groups who are trying to work together, obviously making many mistakes and also doing lots of good, but you know it’s just a bit of a chaotic situation. When I was there I was also organising donations in the warehouse and then going and teaching English lessons which were again very makeshift like anyone who showed; some of us were going for six hours without a break.
I only went there for two long weekends – three or four days at a time twice and after that I decided not to return because I felt that going for such short periods of time wasn’t actually helpful. It would have been useful to be able to go there every weekend, more consistent, but I couldn’t afford to do that in terms of money and time and then I thought that maybe the money I was spending on random trips just showing up and helping when needed would have been better suited to paying someone who was able to be there more.
But being there, even for short amounts of time, must have done some good, right?
Yeah it felt like it did, but I am a strong believer in the fact that sometimes we want to help and volunteer, but some of us want to do it in a way that suits ourselves rather than what the situation needs and I hadn’t realised that until that experience.
So is there a right or wrong way to volunteer?
[laughing] That’s a good one. That was really reflective for me, that was before coordinating volunteers or working on the other side. I hadn’t really thought about it before, I thought that any type of volunteering is helpful and I think it is. It’s hard to say if there’s a right or wrong way, obviously it’s much more grey than that, but I do believe strongly in sort of committing to a certain amount that’s suitable and wether that’s set up by the organisation or by you. I think if you are going to volunteer you should be very clear about your availability and how long you are able to be there. Sometimes coming just for a couple of days and then changing your mind isn’t really helpful. But if you say I can do three months and then you end up doing only two weeks that’s ok, there is flexibility in general. However all organisations are different, have different needs but I think that definitely being clear and having an understanding of what’s needed and how you can best give that rather than sort of thinking Oh I can do this. When I went to volunteering I thought I can teach English, but maybe it was more useful for me to do something completely different.
Some people are really driven to volunteer because of the skills they have, they want to share those specific skills and sometimes that’s great. For example someone designs an app for free for a charity, that’s amazing, but if someone wants to do something that doesn’t quite fit it’s not helpful anymore.
So I don’t think it’s right or wrong way to volunteer, I think it’s more important to give it some thought and understand what’s needed and look at what you’re able to give.
What about Hackney Pirates? Did you first volunteer here then got the job or how did this unfold for you?
I used to live literally across the road and I was here even before it opened. Then I remember seeing it, it sort of appeared and I thought, So interesting! I’ve always been interested in creative writing and literature and also working with young people and I’ve done various bits and pieces over time. So I thought this was really cool, the adventure thing and the pirate thing it’s exciting so I used to come here quite a lot to grab a coffee and I always knew they did something but I never took the time to look up and read the board or look at anything. I kind of knew the kids made stuff, but I had no sense of the details and I don’t know why, but I never asked.
Two years after they opened I was looking for a job, I was teaching English at a language centre in Times Square. It’s a very nice language centre and expensive, so I was teaching people who were quite well off and privileged and it wasn’t very satisfying because you’re teaching people who already have access to skills and so I was not enjoying my job very much and I was actively looking for other jobs. Then I just saw this online and I thought oh my gosh that’s so weird and obviously learned a bit more about it, applied and got it.
I never actually volunteered here which many of the staff haven’t. A few of them started as volunteers and then joined the staff. It’s weird now that I work here, it’s really hard to imagine Hackney without it. We’re very much based in the community. A part of my job is to spread the word and recruit volunteers and create advocates so I get to go out and meet different organizations and people, so I’ve gotten to know Hackney so much more and I live here still. So yeah, since I’ve joined up it opened up a new perspective of the burrough and now that I work and live in the same place it feels very much like my community as well.
Has your perception about volunteering changed as well?
Yeah, definitely. One thing I realised was how many people out there want to help or volunteer. Our volunteers are really special because we say this is the time we need you to arrive, this is what we want from you and the amount of people who just show up and do it, all 400 of them are dedicated and committed. So I think what this has taught me about volunteering is – if you are not involved in volunteering you have no idea how much is going on behind the scenes. You can live in the city or in the world and have no sense of all these other pockets of communities that are going on. I’ve learned that the proportion of people who are interested in volunteering is much higher than you’d normally expect and the amount of value they add to a community is huge.
When people ask me what is my favourite thing about my job I always say I love the kids and I really enjoy witnessing them at work and seeing them succeed, that’s really fulfilling, but I also get to walk in every day and see 20 to 30 adults, complete strangers, just sitting around the table and I know they are there to help. That always makes me really happy. I think I haven’t realised the appetite for volunteering and for community work and obviously because I meet other organisations I see other types of volunteering. I’ve got access to all these stories and all these communities, it’s like a whole lot of level. It’s so impressive how people are willing to dedicate their time and I wasn’t that kind of person before.
Is there anything that people get wrong about volunteering? Are there any misconceptions?
Yeah, there’s a lot of different bits and pieces that happen but I think sometimes it’s so varied depending on the person. Some people show up thinking it’s going to be really easy and there aren’t going to be any challenges and then they realise it actually is self development and there are skills to be learnt every time they come. Some people arrive for their first session really nervous, thinking it’s going to be hard and difficult and they’re not going to know how to do it. And that’s a real misconception that it’s another world and you really need to be skilled and then they realise they can do it and they can learn and they can be confident.
Those are the most general ones that happen. Another misconception is that people often think that charities are not always run most efficient or that community groups are very much grass roots and are ran by people who are not professionals. Sometimes people will make a comment like Oh you’re so organised!
Because we’re really creative and fun sometimes we need to remind people that actually we are also very effective and impactful we’re very rigorous and we’ve got systems and processes, everything is run very smoothly and we put a lot of hard work behind the scenes which often doesn’t get seen so sometimes when it’s school holiday we’re asked What do you guys do? And I’m like Oh, if only you knew.
What is it about working with young people that you enjoy?
Sometimes I think we underestimate them, we have this idea in our head as we grow older that they might not be as capable as us because they’re younger and they’re still learning, but actually the way they see the world sometimes is quite lateral. For example they see a box and they won’t think of it as just a box, they might see a world in it so they think much more laterally, their imagination is really exciting. Some people are more imaginative than others, same with kids but I think that their ability to sort of think, I hate the word outside the box, but yeah more laterally is really exciting to be around and it’s really stimulating, they are also very kind. Most children have a level of kindness that’s really moving and sweet and they’re very empathetic and thoughtful.
Another thing I like about working with young people here is the fact that I see them interacting with adults and they are so interested in what they have to say, they’ve got the time to listen to other people and they’re willing to listen to other people’s perspectives, they’re inquisitive and it’s just lovely.
Have you learned anything from them?
Oh, gosh, loads.
The biggest thing they’ve taught me is to give space, for example when you’re having a conversation and discussing something, sometimes kids require a little bit more space to answer, a little bit more time to think and be themselves and I think as I’ve grown older I lost track of that because when you’re with other adults you’re all competing to get your thoughts across and speaking but when you’re taking a step back and being a little bit more reflective and sort of putting your feeling aside and have an understanding that some people need more space and time. Just allow room for development and for thought and error.
What about yourself, did you learn anything in that regard?
I think I always thought of myself as being very creative and be able to come up with lots of good ideas, arrogantly probably, more than the average person, and when I came here and saw the kids ideas I was like wow. I thought so highly about my ability when actually imagination is something inherent to all human beings and it exists in so many quantities and different ways. Many people are really creative but sometimes it’s just about getting a chance to express it, maybe they just don’t have the platform or the confidence to express it.
Has your creativity or imagination been sparkled in any way?
Definitely or rather not my imagination but my confidence or my understanding of what true confidence is.
So what does true confidence mean to you then?
Well, sometimes I can be quite loud and very happy to talk but sometimes confidence is about really believing in your idea, trusting it and cherishing it, so I think it’s going back to basics and really think what you’re confident about more than just the show of confidence.
Let’s talk a bit about the volunteers. Who comes here to help?
70% of our volunteers are female, the rest male and we’re working to increase that later percentage.
Why do you think this is happening?
I think it’s a reflection of the education system because we’re an education charity but we’re doing quite well compared to the industry average.
In terms of age most of our volunteers are between early twenties to late thirties and that’s the bulk. And then again we’re trying to work with more young people like 16 yo, 18 yo, also people who are aged over 55. It’s not a huge proportion but we’ve been working hard to increase it.
Quite a few of our volunteers come from a university called University East London, UEL, and there’s a few courses there education related so they have to volunteer throughout the year and actually the bulk of the students are from East London so they were once local children who attended the local schools here, so we’ve been recruiting more and more from there. We have about 40 of them a year and that’s great because they really identify with the children in terms of where they grew up and what it means to be young in this area.
We also have a lot of volunteers who work freelance and might work in the creative industries and they’re drawn to this kind of volunteering with the published product and we have corporate volunteers. We work with 6 or 7 companies, some of them are startups, tech startups or finance.
That’s actually how I found out about you, through a friend in one of those companies.
Yeah, there are companies that have this and don’t use it (companies have a volunteering program) or the staff don’t know about it. We work with John Lewis for example and we’ve got six volunteers from them. And then UCL, LSC, all those universities we have a few from there, then six or seven people from sport societies and then local people who live in the area and want to get more involved in their community so it’s a real mix.
We’ve also been working hard to get some of the families, parents and carers and siblings of our young pirates to volunteer and it’s quite hard obviously because of the timings, but we’ve got one volunteer who’s the oldest sister of one of the young pirates and she’s currently done 20 sessions, she’s a student herself, she’s in the final year of school before university. So she’s volunteered with us over the last two years and she’s gained a lot of confidence from it and she said she joined because her sister used to go of to this and she was just so intrigued in what went on and she was also quite terrified of working with young people and really wanted to challenge herself and it’s been really lovely to see something like this.
If you’re interested to volunteer at the Hackney Pirates their website is rich in useful information and guidelines. Read about the results and benefits this learning experience has proven for the kids and take a look at some of the amazing projects the kids have worked on so far.