Volunteering is a word that can conjure up a range of images. It can suggest an international cultural experience, a local charity’s ongoing work, or perhaps something you do to boost your CV. But for some people, volunteering is a lifestyle. It’s an approach to the world that puts value on being part of something bigger, of making an impact, of instigating progressive social change.

And with it being national Volunteers’ Week, a chance for all of us to celebrate the fantastic work undertaken by volunteers across the country, we wanted to shine a spotlight one of our longest standing volunteers – one who volunteered in the UK in the 1970s.

International Service is 66 years old this year. Our history is rich and varied, and it’s taken us to countries all across the world, including western Europe. Yet as we well know, poverty and injustice are not only present in developing countries.

In the beginning, International Service was launched as the international volunteering arm of the UK’s United Nations Association (UNA). We sent volunteers to Holland to support communities that had been torn apart by major floods and help repair the damage caused, as part of a project that was then known as our ‘international service programme’.

International Service then took on a life of its own – sustained by the life of our volunteers.

Just one person

In 1971, Stephen Pittam, a university student living in Nottingham, decided he wanted to spend his summer doing something meaningful. He’d been a core part of the Peace Movement at his university, and he was looking for a way to engage in what was going on in Northern Ireland. The Troubles had been raging since the riots of 1969, and Stephen applied to volunteer in Belfast with the UK's United Nations Association (UNA).

He had already done some volunteering. In 1969, he volunteered with VSO in one of the final cohorts of their Cadet Scheme, and he’d also been part of the University of Nottingham’s social action programme, involving community work such as teaching English to refugees. For Stephen, volunteering wasn’t new; but in 1971, he took a big step.

The UNA had been promoting play schemes across the country, and Stephen was sent to Moyard and New Barnsley, West Belfast, to develop one such scheme on the estate. The project involved setting up a kids’ summer camp, to engage local children in arts, and raise awareness about the importance of play. Most of the children had been affected by The Troubles, and many had recently migrated to the estate as their families were seeking the relative security of a single identity community.

Stephen worked with a remarkable group of student volunteers, from many European countries. In fact, one volunteer was a Palestinian living in exile in Denmark, and came to volunteer in Belfast. Together, they held pottery classes, built a kiln and fired their work; they ran other crafts workshops and developed playgrounds; they held drama clubs and sports and games in the communities.

"We were focused on the new community centre and a derelict flat that we’d done up for craft activities."

As you’d expect for Belfast in the 1970s, it was a intense environment. The camp provided a hugely therapeutic role for the community, with hundreds of children attending, and parents engaged with the work as well. ‘The volunteers were fantastic. We had the most amazing summer camp’, says Stephen.

Facing barriers

Following the success of the project, Stephen began negotiating with his university to take a year out to try and integrate some of the activities that the UNA team had started into the programme of the brand-new community centre that had just opened in the June of that year. They’d received permission to build an adventure playground and been awarded a grant from the Community Relations Commission to buy new equipment for the kids in the area.

"I was studying applied social science at Nottingham at the time, and I thought ‘this is far more relevant than anything I’m learning at university!"

But two days after the camp finished, a period of internment was introduced. ‘We lost everything we’d built in the community programmes. The equipment we’d bought for the adventure playground was acquired for the barricades.’ And eleven people were killed in what later became known as the Ballymurphy Massacre.

"It was rough. I was beaten up several times by the paratroopers."

Despite a tough time in Belfast in 1971, Stephen returned the year after he graduated and stayed until 1974, with support from the Quakers in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. He then moved on to the Republic of Ireland with his new wife, before moving to Jordan to volunteer in the Palestinian refugee camps, again with the Quakers.

"My dad said, 'when are you going to get a job?' (laughs). I didn’t start in paid employment until I was 26!"

A lifestyle

After his extensive volunteering experience and ten years working as a community development worker, Stephen was recruited to the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT), where he worked for 26 years. In 1986, he became the CEO of the charity.

‘The volunteering experience was influential for me in being able to find paid work in a sector I really cared about. If I hadn’t had that in-depth experience of working in Northern Ireland, I wouldn’t have got the role.’

JRCT, a Quaker trust, was looking for someone who would be able to work on the grants programme in Northern Ireland, supporting activity in the peace process. The three years Stephen spent in West Belfast gave him a lived and experiential understanding of Northern Ireland that allowed the JRCT to support some of the most adventurous work in relation to the peace process later on. The charity was deeply influential in the peace work in Northern Ireland.

Stephen is now retired. He still volunteers, currently on the board of trustees for the York Travellers’ Trust, with the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York, and as a befriender in the York Human Rights Defenders Befriending scheme. He’s on the board of the British Institute for Human Rights, and for the Global Greengrants Fund (GGF), which makes grants to environmental activists in 120 countries in the global south. He’s closely involved with the York Human Rights City network, and in all that extra free time, he’s on the board for the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF), which supports the concept of community philanthropy.

‘Both GGF and GFCF are interested in rethinking philanthropy and trying to give credence, authority and backing to people in local communities throughout the global south in having control and power to make change.’

Like International Service, Stephen believes in trying to change the dynamic of development by acknowledging that there is a charitable impulse in all communities.

Our people

International Service believes in making change together. Finding brilliant organisations and people in developing communities who are already doing incredible work, and enabling them to increase the scale and impact of what they’re doing.

And we believe in volunteers. People-power. Our shared humanity. Because Stephen is just one of millions of incredible people who has volunteered to make the world around him a bit better.

‘And all because I went on a UNA work camp in 1971!’

Volunteering is a way of life for Stephen. Because volunteering changed his life – as well as the lives of those he worked with.

A huge thank you to all of our volunteers, past and present, who’ve given their time and energy to incredible causes, in areas of conflict and injustice, to promote equality and change the world for the better.


Happy Volunteers’ Week!