Time for a career change? Volunteer in the woods

‘Malaysian by birth. Chinese by race. Welsh by location. Nature lover by discovery. Running by choice. What else is there?’

This is Ai-Lin’s Twitter profile. Ai-Li is an inspiring volunteer leading mindfulness and woodland walking sessions in Merthyr Tydfil with Actif Woods Wales, a woodland health and wellbeing programme run by Coed Lleol (Small Woods Wales). Volunteers like her make a significant contribution to this programme, helping to run groups, bringing with them enthusiasm, time and skills. But, why volunteer? There are many different reasons why people from all walks of life decide to volunteer. Here is Ai-Lin’s story.

Time for change

Ai-Lin has lived and worked in Wales for over 16 years. She moved from a stressful career in PR and events in Malaysia to work in the tourism sector in the UK. Then eight years ago she laced up her trainers and did a trail race on Brynna Hill in south Wales and discovered a new vocation. Ai-Lin decided she wanted to ‘inspire and encourage others to get outdoors, to explore, and to feel that sense of well-being and liberation that I have often experienced when I am out in the woods, or on the trails’. And she has certainly done that.

Sharing skills

Volunteers like Ai-Lin have a huge amount to offer. In May 2018 Ai-Lin retrained, completing a Higher National Diploma in Environmental Conservation Management. She now shares her passion for the outdoors, and knowledge of the importance of woodlands, trees, plants and nature with others. She also practices mindfulness meditation, and during woodland sessions is helping people to understand what it means and how it can benefit them. Volunteers have the opportunity to learn new skills to help support the running of sessions, such as hand tool use, woodland skills and social forestry.

A new career

She has gone on to work for RSPB, volunteer for our Actif Woods Wales programme, lead mindfulness and nature walks for local organisations, and become a Park Warden at Taff Bargoed Park. Ai-Lin says, ‘I would not have thought of venturing to do this if not for Actif Woods Wales. Meeting, volunteering and working with you all has opened my eyes to a whole new world. Thanks so much for setting me on a path!’. What an amazing volunteering journey, taking her into a new career path!

Finding community and confidence

Giving is receiving. Volunteering has given Ai-Lin huge rewards. She says, ‘volunteering is a way of adding a different dimension to my life so that it is not just all about work. It is also an opportunity to meet like-minded people who may enjoy being out in nature as I do, an opportunity to use some of my skills or knowledge to help and inspire others, and to learn new things for myself’. She is now very involved in her local community, has a wider social network and is aware of so many more inspiring community projects than before. ‘Volunteering has also helped me build my own confidence in delivering sessions and speaking to groups about nature. Before this, it had never occurred to me that I could do this!’.

Putting life in perspective

Our Actif Woods Wales programme is helping to make a crucial difference in people’s health and wellbeing according to woodland research by Bangor University. A three-year study by Heli Gittins,

PhD Researcher in the School of Natural Sciences, is beginning to reveal connections with woodland activities, confidence and career building. The fact that programme participants are aged over 25, long-term unemployed or economically inactive, and either experiencing a work limiting health condition, are a carer or aged over 54 years, makes these early results even more profound.

Ai-Lin says, ‘It is inspiring to hear stories of how people have over-come mental health issues or how despite personal struggles, people have continued to strife and get better. It has helped me put my own life into perspective. A natural setting like a woodland is a salve for the mind and the soul. It helps people to ‘re-set’ their busy lives. An escape and respite from the hustle and bustle and just feel at peace’.

Finding volunteering opportunities

Coed Lleol welcomes volunteers from all walks of life to volunteer with the Actif Woods Wales programme. Find out more on the Coed Lleol (Small Woods Wales) website, and contact local staff directly to discover volunteering opportunities in your area: www.coedlleol.org.uk