Volunteering with schools in a virtual world

Student societies are finding innovative ways to deliver the same personalized volunteer work in a locked-down world

Volunteering in schools is a key activity for a multitude of societies. In the world of lockdown, these services may be even more important to the lives and well-being of the kids involved; a chance to break the monotony of school life. Trinity News spoke to two societies, Trinity Vincent De Paul (VDP) and the College Historical Society (The Hist) about their work with primary and secondary schools respectively during lockdown and to see how they have adapted to this new type of volunteering.

Trinity VDP is one of the largest and most active societies on campus, known for engaging in a diverse range of volunteer work. Throughout lockdown they have developed a new relationship with St. Francis Street, a primary school they had worked with in the past, facilitating various virtual volunteering activities with the kids.

Peter Benson, VDP President, told Trinity News: “Over the last few weeks volunteers have been doing presentations and discussion groups with the class on influential figures in Black History. The school has encouraged us to set up a pen pal system with the kids, each volunteer sending a kid art and a letter back and forth over a few weeks.” 

“We also run a letter writing activity, where a load of volunteers will be getting together on Zoom to write letters in each other’s company. These will be sent off to a housing with care facility,” Benson said. “We will be sending each of their residents and individual letter and will be doing so through the semester. Our activity leaders for Trinity Club and Jubilee Club, which are our activities for adults with additional support needs and older community members, have been calling their members on a weekly basis over the summer and during term to check in with them.”

Volunteering has definitely been a different experience for all involved, kids, schools and volunteers alike. In the past, VDP has run schools’ clubs focused on drama, art and sports, naturally with volunteers attending the school to run these events with the kids. In reflecting on how VDP schools’ events have changed, Benson said that “working with schools online has given our after-school activities a little more of a formal educational tone. We’ve been able to give more formal lessons, teaching kids about Black History and helping kids with their science projects”.

For the volunteers, no longer having to commute to schools and doing all their work at a laptop has been a change too. “It has also been a lot easier to schedule virtual volunteering sessions. It’s easier to run them and the event as a whole takes up less time, not having to fit it in to your day because you’re not spending time commuting or setting stuff up beforehand,” Benson said. “It’s unfortunately less social and interactive than in-person volunteering would be. Traditionally 4 to 5 volunteers would work together with a group of kids and you could get some one-on-one interaction with the kids, you can’t get that now, talking to faces in a zoom call. Not having the walks back and forth from the schools and those little times that volunteers get to spend together definitely makes it harder for volunteers to get to know each other.”

In spite of these challenges, there has certainly been an overwhelmingly positive response from the schools, who are looking to expand VDP’s involvement, and from the kids involved. On this, Benson said that he had been “pleasantly surprised” by how the students had received the volunteers in an online context. “The kids engage with the presentations, asking questions and laughing at jokes. These zoom activities are adding a lot of variety to their day of class. I feel they’re getting to see new faces in the classroom and some excitement to what I’m sure is a tough environment to learn in,” he said. “The schools and teachers have really welcomed us too. I think they appreciate that variety and no doubt they’re more restricted in what they can do compared to a usual year and we’re able to bring something new.”

A central part of the Hist’s weekly calendar is school debating. The Hist run the Senior Leinster Schools Debating Competition in conjunction with the Literary and History Society in UCD. The competition involves around 200 speakers from 4th-6th year giving speeches on topics they are given a week in advance. Many students from the Hist volunteer to judge the competition. Although normally held on campus, the competition has had to migrate to Zoom this year. Laura Egan, the Hist’s Librarian, responsible for organising this competition, spoke to Trinity News about how they have adapted this year. Egan spoke about how moving the competition online forced them to make changes that turnout out to be benefits. “It’s now easier for schools from outside Dublin to be involved in the competition, who might have found it harder to enter other years due to the need to travel. This has been great to see, and hopefully these schools will remain involved in the competition in future years,” Egan said.

“Given the societal move towards Zoom events, we have decided to host a number of online panel events aimed at our Leinster Schools student competitors this year,” Egan said, “These will complement the topics for the debates and will hopefully spark further interest in the topics discussed. It is an exciting opportunity for students to hear from guest speakers on a range of topics the students themselves have debated.”

Although over the past months online debating has become a normal part of everyday university debating, the process was entirely new for schools, which naturally has come with teething problems. Reflecting as to what the biggest challenges they faced moving the competition online were, Egan said that it was the number of small, but important, logistical details. “Between lining up the changed college calendar with when schools are open to set dates for rounds, and trying to ensure all speakers get the necessary information on time regardless of lockdowns, to delivering feedback to the relevant teams, plenty of things which are taken for granted as occurring in certain ways most years have had to be completely redesigned.”

Naturally, co-ordinating the competition across schools from around the province comes with challenges too. For Egan, “there has been a mixed response from schools about moving the competition online”. 

“Many see it as the best option given the circumstances but have found it challenging to get used to the new format and procedures. It’s as new for the schools as it is for the volunteers, so understandably there has been some minor confusion in the early stages of implementation. Hopefully it will get easier for all as we adapt!”