The Student Voluntary Service

A conversation with Student Voluntary Service, Sarah Rodway-Swanson about the goals, programs, and how to get involved with SVS.

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illustration: Gabrielle Wolf
illustration: Gabrielle Wolf

Watching the news in today’s world is a sure way to lower your spirits. With refugee crises and human rights issues ever present, it is easy to feel unable to do anything to help the world. We are a small town in a small country. Does anything we do really make a difference?

Perhaps this is the best time to take it all back to a local level and do something to help our own community where we, as students, receive so much help and support.

The St Andrews Voluntary Service (SVS) is on hand and could be the answer to the question I constantly find myself asking whilst scrolling the BBC News homepage: “what can I do to help?”

Local issues within communities care often overshadowed by greater worldwide issues that many student charities choose to support. This, of course, is commendable and not to be underestimated. However, if you are looking for something on a smaller scale, something which enables you to see the difference in your own town, then SVS is the place for you.

The Saint spoke to the convener of SVS, Sarah Rodway-Swanson, to find out more about what the service does and how St Andrews students can get involved. First of all, the history of SVS is perhaps more interesting than one would think. Ms Rodway-Swanson said the service “began as a branch of the Christian Union that distributed volunteers to the local community to assist with tasks like gardening and shopping. In 1987, SVS separated from the Christian Union to become a recognised charity in Scotland and started to expand into other project areas. It was only more recently, in 2006, that SVS became a subcommittee of the St Andrews Students’ Association.”

As SVS is a subcommittee, Ms Rodway-Swanson’s position not only enables her to tend to her role as convener but also sit on the Student Services Council and be involved in the Union more widely. This could be something to consider if you are looking for ways to get more involved with the University as well as voluntary activities.

If you are interested in volunteering, SVS has a huge variety of projects in which the student body can get involved.

Ms Rodway-Swanson told The Saint, “We currently have about 50 active projects that we send volunteers to. We currently operate under seven project areas: youth, youth with additional needs, adults with additional needs, elderly, befriending, animals, and environmental. We’re also about to introduce an eighth project area: community to encompass a few new projects we are looking at, including Home Start NE Fife and Storehouse Foodbank. Some projects we manage ourselves, whilst others are run by outside organisations and we recruit on their behalf.”

As she says, there really is something for everyone; no matter what you are interested in, there will be some form of volunteering that will suit you: “Some volunteers spend their Sunday evenings at Stratheden Psychiatric Hospital dementia wards, whilst others spend their Saturdays working in a greyhound rescue centre. We have volunteers working with five and six-year-olds at Families First and others with 100+-year-olds at St Andrews House Care Home. We have volunteers doing arts and crafts with adults at Rymonth House and others helping grow vegetables at Balgove Larder.”

I was astonished to discover just how much there is going on in St Andrews in terms of volunteering. SVS has all kinds of projects, some for groups and some for individuals. You can tailor the volunteering to exactly what you want to get out of the experience whilst also giving something back to the community.

“We have one-on-one befriending, we have leadership roles, and we have other projects where it feels more like a social occasion than volunteering,” Ms Rodway-Swanson said.

It seems, therefore, that you can not only do a  selfless act but also gain valuable experience in terms of interacting with new people, whether they are those you are helping or fellow volunteers. However, many of us are hesitant to get involved in such activities because we are too busy or already committed to a society or activity. However, Ms Rodway-Swanson explained that in SVS, you are the one who chooses when and how often you volunteer.

“Some projects run weekly, some fortnightly, some monthly. Whatever time you want to give, the entire community is so grateful, whether that’s one hour or 30 hours each semester. […] We also have one-off projects throughout the year that are great, especially if people don’t have much time to spare. Recent one-off projects have included family fun afternoons at MUSA, conservation days at West Sands, and coffee mornings at a local Care Home.”

One example of a current project that SVS is running is TechnoSmart, which was coordinated by the elderly project officer at SVS. TechnoSmart revolves around teaching the elderly how to use technology, meaning that it is something any student could take part in. Thanks to the support and funding of the Cosmos Centre and Fife Council, SVS volunteers run weekly TechnoSmart sessions.

“Volunteers teach elderly attendees how to use technology [by] looking at Word documents [and] using the internet and apps like Skype to keep in touch with friends and family,” Ms Rodway-Swanson said.

SVS also has students who volunteer as classroom assistants at Madras College, further demonstrating the fact that the group helps integrate the University into the town. It is projects like these that could potentially appear insignificant but which I believe are integral to the strength of a community. Why volunteer then? Why give up an hour of naptime?

Abigail Mounde, a second-year who recently took part in the TechnoSmart volunteering project and really enjoyed it, said, “University is quite a selfish time. You wake up every morning and only have yourself to think about. An hour a week isn’t too much to give, and it’s something different to do.”

Ms Rodway-Swanson adds to this, saying, “Volunteering is an excellent way to give back to the local area. It’s a chance to meet people of a different demographic and escape from the student bubble for a couple of hours. Volunteering helps an awful lot of people in the St Andrews area. Volunteering helps the service user, the organisation, and you. The people we work with are always so happy to see our volunteers. The organisations we work alongside are so appreciative of the time students give to them. For the volunteer themselves, it can help you gain work experience, gain confidence, and improve your physical and mental health. There is an immense sense of achievement and pride coming away from volunteering. [Also], we cover all your expenses if you have to travel or buy resources.”

SVS is an impressive asset to the University and community as a whole, demonstrating a very positive side of town and gown relations. The sheer number and variety of projects that SVS has on offer is a sign of just how impressive the service is. Whether you have volunteered before, are feeling unfulfilled by student life, or even are interested in becoming part of the SVS committee, there is sure to be something of interest to you.

If you would like to get involved with SVS, you should check out the group’s website at yoursvs.org.uk, find them on Facebook, or send them an email at svs@st-andrews.ac.uk. The website has details of all the projects, and you can apply there. You can also sign up for their mailing list on the website

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