If you’re looking for a way to give back to your local community, Parkrun may be the place to do it. Lydia Willgress speaks to five volunteers about their experiences.
Holly Ochiltree starts most weekends at Parkrun – but you don’t always find her running. The 36-year-old also runs the social media for two events and acts as a co-event director.
In fact, to date she has volunteered 215 times, crediting the free initiative with not only helping to boost her mental health, but also improving her confidence with things like public speaking.
“There’s no denying that the world is a tough place right now,” she tells Stylist. “Parkrun shows me each week that there is community and good people who want to make the world a better place. I work from home frequently and it’s easy to feel a bit detached from the world and go days without seeing or speaking to people. Each week, Parkrun gives me a chance to get out of the house and see other people.”
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She’s not the only one who has felt the benefits of volunteering. Research conducted by Sheffield Hallam University’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre found that those who also volunteer reported an 84% improvement to their happiness, compared to 79% for those who simply partake. Parkrun says the findings support their long-held belief that volunteering improves health and wellbeing as much as walking or running.
So, you fancy doing it but you’re not sure how can you get involved? We’ve spoken to volunteers from across the country about their experiences.
“I like the diversity of different roles”
We joined marshal Emma Hodges one Sunday morning at Horsham Junior Parkrun. The 39-year-old has volunteered 115 times, having started helping when it was first set up in 2017.
“As a runner, I thought it was a great way to give back to the community,” she says. Volunteers can choose what they’d like to do –from event director, who takes overall responsibility for each event, to sign language support for the briefings, funnel managers to help at the finish line, and barcode scanners to ensure people get their results.
“One of the things I like is the diversity of different roles you can volunteer to do,” Hodges says. “But if I were to pick my favourite it would be being a marshal near the end of the course – watching the children supporting each other to get to the end is a lovely thing to see.”
If you’re hesitant about volunteering, she recommends getting in touch with someone who has done it before. “There is no obligation and you can just put your hand up when it suits you to help out,” she explains. “There are a variety of roles and something to suit everyone –you can even just take the hi-vis vests home to wash them every so often!”
“I used Parkrun to meet new people”
Moving to a new place can be daunting. So when Michelle Carlton moved to Southport in Merseyside, she saw volunteering at Parkrun as a way of settling in.
“I knew nobody so I took it as an opportunity to meet new people,” she tells us. “Then after the pandemic, we struggled to get enough volunteers, so I started more regularly and now I love marshalling on my corner, bringing smiles to all our runners.”
Carlton has now volunteered 72 times – more than she’s run. “I love bringing joy to other people, I love to make them smile, have a dance and laugh with me while doing their 5km. The high I get from that beats a runner’s high any day.”
She reminds us that without volunteers, Parkrun wouldn’t go ahead. “Our lovely volunteers stand in all weather, cheering, supporting and congratulating every single person that comes to Parkrun. If we didn’t do it, Parkrun wouldn’t happen.” And she promises you won’t regret getting involved. “Every single role is fun and brings you into contact with such lovely people –other volunteers and runners alike.”
“Volunteering reminds me to be present”
Jen Pickett also approached her local Parkrun after moving to a new area. She now regularly volunteers at Montrose Parkrun near Aberdeen and recently hit her ‘50’ volunteer milestone.
“Volunteering reminds me to be present in the moment in a way that’s rare these days,” she says. “When I’m playing a supporting role in someone else’s Parkrun, and I see them round that corner or cross the finish line, it’s just such a thrill to share in their success. Parkrun is a great leveller and meeting other volunteers has restored my faith in our shared humanity, cheesy as that may be.”
Her favourite volunteer role is run director as she gets to chat to new and regular volunteers. “I also like getting to call out milestones and highlight visitors, I feel this makes Parkrun feel more inclusive and encouraging,” she says.
Although there is a bit of pressure to help the event run smoothly, Pickett unwinds at her local cafe afterwards to process results. “I don’t think people realise that literally anyone can volunteer, no experience necessary,” she says. “Some of our volunteers never run the course, they just enjoy being a part of Parkrun and provide so much support it’s unreal. Others volunteer to give back, or to take part while nursing an injury.”
Even children can volunteer if they’re keen, with the support of a responsible adult. “We’ve supported plenty of youth working towards their Duke of Edinburgh Award and will always find a role for someone willing to help.”
“I’ve learned loads about myself”
Jeric Yuen has volunteered over 80 times and can often be found at Southwark Parkrun in south east London. He started volunteering after injuring himself while training for the Boston Marathon.
“Since I couldn’t run, I thought maybe I should volunteer and cheer for others who were running instead of just staying in the house,” he says. “I started off as a marshal cheering everyone along the way. It feels good to be able to do that, to see some of your friends, to motivate others and to just be outside for some fresh air.”
As well as bringing him closer to the local community, Yuen credits Parkrun with helping him learn about himself and build on his social and communications skills. “Every time I volunteer, I like to talk to different people to try to understand them better,” he says. “To find out where they are from, what they do or if they’re a runner who is training for an event.
“You also get to learn more about yourself,” he adds. “This includes how you work with different people from different nationalities, ages and backgrounds, while you share all sorts of new experiences with them.”
So, as the new year rumbles on, why should you get involved? In Yuen’s own words: “Life is just too short to not give Parkrun volunteering a go.”
To find out more about volunteering at Parkrun, click here.
Images: Lydia Willgress/Jeric Yuen/Holly Ochiltree/Michelle Carlton
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