Diary of a YouthNet volunteer

It’s amazing what volunteering can do for you. About this time last year, I was seriously worrying about my career. I’d graduated from uni and I was still working in the same job I had held during my studies back at home in Devon. And now? Well now I’m about to start a new job in communications, and I’ve managed to move to London. It’s all because of my involvement with YouthNet, which started in April 2009…

I was searching Do-it, YouthNet’s national volunteering website, as I really wanted to try something different. I came across an advert for an online volunteering position for Lifetracks. Lifetracks.com is the latest website to be developed by YouthNet – it focuses on learning, training and work for young people. As a volunteer, I joined the online community and posted my opinions and ideas to help the web development team decide what information would be useful and what young people like to find on websites. YouthNet is keen to consult young people on all the work they do.

From this experience, I ended up leaving the countryside for a day at YouthNet HQ (their office in East London, but it sounds more James Bond this way) to meet the humans behind the virtual community. During my first visit, I piped up to say I wanted to work in PR and thanks to Laura, Volunteer Manager at YouthNet, I went on to spend a week of work experience with the PR and Media team in September. In turn, this led to submitting an application to the Vodafone World of Difference programme to gain funding support for two months to work as a communications assistant with the team.

So, this is where you currently find me. I started the position in January and am (sadly) due to finish this week. It’s been a brilliant experience and I have learnt a huge amount about working in PR and for a charity. I have been keeping a blog on the Vodafone World of Difference website, but this is a shortened version to try and summarise everything I have learnt during my two months.

Working in the Marketing and Communications team has involved many tasks. The team is responsible for promoting YouthNet in the media and creating as much positive coverage as possible, so that people are encouraged to use their services. Achieving this often requires writing press releases about new developments, such as offering a spokesperson (I had to offer agony uncle and askTheSite relationship advisor Matt Whyman for Valentine’s Day) or events held by the charity, for example, a breakfast seminar to highlight a new piece of research, or an awards ceremony following a competition.

Unfortunately, producing a press release doesn’t mean the media automatically runs the story – PR doesn’t have a deal with magic – so this means time has to be spent ‘selling-in’ the stories the good ol’ fashioned way, over the dog and bone (some London slang I’ve obviously not used during my time in the big smoke). Sometimes selling-in is hard – people don’t want to talk to you because they’re not interested/don’t have time/are rude/or a combination of all three. Other times, it’s a breeze and the ears of the person you are talking to prick up, and they say the lovely words: “Yes, we could use that – could you tell me some more about it?”

An example of a pitch that went successfully was with a local radio station in Humberside. They interviewed one of YouthNet’s young campaigners, Liam Pearce of the Respect? campaign. But I also had many not-so-good results. It can be a little hard at times and you just need to carry on. Luckily I’m not normally fazed by rejection – I just need a few biscuits and a good cup of tea.

There are other ways to grab the media’s attention. Quite often charities need some celebrity endorsement to gain column inches. I was successful in securing Amir Khan to sign a Respect? campaign letter to editors, which was printed in local newspapers across the country. Another of my jobs has been to contact British soaps (Eastenders to Hollyoaks via River City and Holby) to ask if they would display TheSite.org’s self-harm posters on set in support of Self-Injury Awareness Day on March 1.

Aside from daily jobs, there are also ongoing projects for upcoming events. I started at a time when the next big one was the Student Journalists Seminar – an idea dreamed up and brought to fruition by Media and PR Officer, Gabriella. In my former life as a student, I was a contributor to my university’s newspaper, so I was pleased to be able to work on something about which I have some background experience.

It was a brilliant event. The speakers Gaby had lined up were journalists from The Times, The Independent, Head of Interactive at the BBC, former Political Editor of The Mirror and the editor of the National Student, PLUS YouthNet’s very own chairman and ex-broadcaster Martyn Lewis hosted (talk about a full programme!). They were certainly worth the effort of every student who attended, trekking the length or breadth of Great Britain, as they received the opportunity to ask questions and gain advice from the esteemed panel. The seminar also provided the opportunity to learn about YouthNet’s TheSite.org through a presentation and brainstorming session, to encourage the student journalists to use the resource to write accurate and fresh articles.

Although the event went without a major hitch, it hadn’t always been plain sailing. We had a strict budget and when the going got tough, it meant cutting the food in order to offer students travel bursaries. No one at YouthNet is afraid of a bit of a challenge though, so it just meant changing our plan of attack: I started ‘scrounging’ sourcing free food from generous companies. These included Pret A Manger, Dominos Pizza, Yazoo milkshakes, Panda Licorice, Nairns Oatcakes, Eat Natural cereal bars and flapjacks from The Fabulous Bakin’ Boys. Quite a spread! It’s amazing what you can get when you really need it.

So, my time is nearly up. I will spending the last few days with the team doing things that I’ve saved up – the annual coverage review (boo!) and adding essential numbers to the press phone (talk about glamorous). I will leave you with this…

For your viewing pleasure, here is a video that I was asked to do by Volunteering England a couple of weeks ago – it aims to show the importance of volunteering for job-seekers. It’s obviously not an Oscar-worthy performance, I’m no Sandra Bullock, but it is a glowing recommendation of how significant working with YouthNet has been to me.

By Kate Walker

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Gabriella Jozwiak

About Gabriella Jozwiak

Gabriella was a Media and PR Officer for YouthNet between 2008-2010.
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