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Volunteer Melanie Stewart discusses the impact of volunteering

Melanie Stewart, age 52, is partially sighted with optic atrophy, and has found that volunteering for RNIB has enriched her life. When she started losing her sight, she found that her job was increasingly stressful, so became a stay-at-home mum for her youngest daughter.

Melanie lives with her husband and daughters in Belfast and has been volunteering for RNIB for four years, after a career in the banking industry. Melanie has undertaken a number of volunteering roles; including Technology for Life Admin Volunteer and a Community Lead Volunteer. She volunteers as a befriender and as a Product for Life Assistant, which was her very first volunteering role.

Experimenting with different volunteering roles with RNIB

“When my daughter grew up, I began to feel isolated and a bit restless. I was invited to join activities with RNIB but at that time, I didn't feel ready, so I decided to try volunteering instead. I started volunteering in RNIB’s shop as a Products for Life Assistant and haven’t looked back.

I was supported and empowered to try other things and was given the opportunity to help another RNIB staff member on a residential ‘Finding Your Feet’ course. Through this I've had so many challenging volunteering experiences as a Community Volunteer. I've volunteered at Hillsborough Castle many times and at the Balmoral Show. I even spoke publicly about my sight loss to a group of students, a thing I never thought I'd be able to do. I was shaking like a leaf!

Out of my volunteering roles, I'd say my heart belongs to the Products for Life work, as that's where it all started. I feel it's extremely important that RNIB has a place for people to come to. They may come in to look at magnifiers or maybe they don't really know what they want, but they will leave knowing about audio books, Technology for Life training, our counselling service, as well as other support. They understand that as a charity we're here for them and this will often start their connection with RNIB.

Volunteering as a phone befriender during the Covid 19 lockdown and creating Gogglebox

During the Covid pandemic and lockdown, things came to a standstill, and I missed volunteering a lot. I began volunteering as a phone befriender and discovered that I could help people who were lonely or struggling with sight loss because I'd been there and come through it.

I was encouraged by staff at RNIB to think of something I could do online from home, so then Gogglebox was born. This is an online group for people to meet up and chat about movies, programmes and box sets that have audio description on TV and Netflix, etc. We all enjoy it so much that the group is still going and we’re all friends.

The value of volunteering

Volunteering has challenged me, built my confidence and brought me fulfilment and new friendships - as well as offering me opportunities I may not have otherwise got to experience.

An RNIB Community Access Worker introduced me to VI tennis and three years later I'm now qualified for the Irish team and will go to the World championships. I'm the Outreach worker at CIYMS Tennis Club in East Belfast.

I've also rediscovered a love of creative writing. None of this would have been possible without RNIB, and I thank them for the opportunities and for enriching my life. I would encourage everyone to give volunteering a go. There's something for everyone and in helping others you will also help yourself.”