Unexpected life lessons from Volunteering in Barretstown

Aoife Clerkin talks about her experience of volunteering in Barretstown

Written by Aoife Clerkin


Barretstown provides residential programmes of therapeutic recreation for children and families affected by serious illness. I first volunteered in Barretstown in 2011 after hearing that they were seeking new volunteers. I had no idea what to expect and I was so nervous the day before I was supposed to start that I almost backed out. I’m so glad I didn’t.

I’ve since completed around 15 camps in Barretstown (I’ve lost count!) and I even spent six months working in Barretstown as an activity leader. I knew that volunteering in Barretstown would mean getting to be part of a life changing programme for seriously ill children but I had no idea that it would change my life as well.

Here are five unexpected things that volunteering in Barretstown has taught me:     

It’s ok to be silly

In Barretstown pretending to be invisible is a perfectly legitimate way to spend an afternoon, eating your dessert with no hands is a common occurrence and dancing after meals is standard practice. Barretstown has taught me that if you’re ok with being silly, the people around you become ok with being silly which results in more fun for everyone. 

Surviving without technology is possible

Barretstown is pretty much a no technology zone. This is to ensure that campers can get the full benefits of participating in the programme on offer and a true break from the outside world. At home, I can barely go fifteen minutes without checking my phone but in Barretstown this need is replaced with the need to explore the secret garden, pose riddles and sing camp songs at the top of my lungs.

It is always possible to be better

Barretstown challenges campers to go outside their comfort zones in order to discover new things about themselves. Even after completing many camps I can say with confidence that I always learn something new when I go to Barretstown. Whether it’s a new joke or a new approach to dealing with challenging behaviour, there’s never been a day in Barretstown where I haven’t seen a fellow volunteer do something amazing that I can learn from.

Inclusivity has endless benefits    

Barretstown structures programmes to ensure that every camper, regardless of personal needs or abilities can participate in activities. It’s amazing how this policy of inclusivity can create a positive atmosphere. Volunteers in Barretstown tend to be excellent at practicing what they preach and hence are also inclusive with each other. Inclusive acts by volunteers range from offering to make everyone at the table a cup of tea to writing everyone in the cottage team a warm and fuzzy (a nice message written from one volunteer to another).

Being a role model is serious business

Perhaps the greatest lesson Barretstown has taught me is that being a role model for campers is a great honour but also a great responsibility. Campers really look to volunteers to act as an example for how to treat others, how to behave and how to participate in activities. There have been several times in Barretstown where I have seen the enthusiasm of volunteers turn reluctant and nervous campers into excited and engaged campers.   

It has been an absolute privilege to be part of the Barretstown team and I look forward to volunteering again in the years to come. If you are even half considering volunteering in Barretstown all I can say is go for it! You’ll join a community of amazing people who are committed to enabling seriously ill children to rediscover their childhoods. Maybe you’ll learn a few unexpected life lessons too. Find out more about volunteering in Barretstown here

Read more about volunteering , online volunteering, and how you can do good for others while gaining valuable experience for your cv

Our work is supported by