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Four hours volunteering at Africa Alive helped to cure my anxiety

PUBLISHED: 15:15 07 April 2017

Africa Alive currently has four female Giraffes. Picture: MEGAN GOODWIN

Africa Alive currently has four female Giraffes. Picture: MEGAN GOODWIN

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Reporter, Megan Goodwin, had no idea how much of an impact volunteering could have on people’s lives until she experienced a day in the life of a volunteer herself.
Driving through the unspoiled Suffolk landscape in Blythburgh, you would have no idea from that just ten minutes away are some of the most critically endangered species on the planet.

Blue Eyed Lemurs at Africa Alive. Picture: MEGAN GOODWINBlue Eyed Lemurs at Africa Alive. Picture: MEGAN GOODWIN

Greeted by welcoming smiling staff, Africa Alive has been a part of volunteer scheme company Community Action Suffolk since 2013, which has helped people between the ages of 18 to 80 to take part in a wide range of activities and organisations across the county.

Volunteering is not just giving help for free to a needy cause – it can have huge benefits for a person, helping them throuigh mental health problems and other personal issues.

After starting off my day by preparing breakfast for the primates, I joined keeper Emma, who has worked for Africa Alive for over nine years, off to ‘Lemur Island’.

Senior Keeper, Zoe, (left) with reporter Megan Goodwin (right) at Africa Alive.Senior Keeper, Zoe, (left) with reporter Megan Goodwin (right) at Africa Alive.

The island is home to Black Lemurs, Mongoose Lemurs and Blue-eyed Black Lemurs, many of whom clambered over us to steal a piece of food from our buckets.

I learnt about the extensive process that goes in to preparing food for the animals, taking into consideration their weight, sex, number of animals, age and any health issues they may have in order to meet each animals’ needs.

The morning followed by heading back to feed some of the larger primates, including Colobus monkeys and the new baby Golden-Bellied Mangabey – named ‘Nugget’ by the keepers who have yet to find out the gender of the park’s latest edition.

Reporter, Megan Goodwin, with the giraffes at Africa Alive.Reporter, Megan Goodwin, with the giraffes at Africa Alive.

Senior Kepper, Zoe, said: “The volunteers are a great help, especially on busy days. As long as they have enough experience they can go on in a section and help the keeper.”

Over a coffee break, I learnt how volunteering opportunities at the park has allowed people to build so much confidence.

Claire Ingram, volunteer co-ordinator, went on to explain to me about one young lad who, when he started, wouldn’t even make eye contract, now, six months on, he gives educational talks to the guests.

Claire said: “We do a lot with volunteers with additional support needs, to ensure they get a really positive experience.

“Volunteering really does transform lives. The difference can be subtle and huge but it’s the confidence people get. I think it’s because you are around animals that you would not normally get close to.

“A lot of the volunteers want to add skills for their CV. Showing that you are hands on and can deal with the public allows you to show those skills to an employer.

“Whereas some professions in high pressured jobs come along as a stress release. It’s about understanding volunteer’s motivations, they all have different reasons to be here.

“It’s an eye opener to the staff here as well what a difference it makes to people’s lives.”

We could only chat for a little while, as I returned to help feed the giraffes and clean out their enclosure. This was the best part of the day; getting up close to hand feed giraffes.

Dan, one of the keeper’s at Africa Alive looks after the hoofed animals including the giraffes.

He started working here originally as a volunteer after suffering from social anxiety. Six months later he was employed by the park and during his five years working at Africa Alive he has now gained qualifications, including a diploma, after studying a variety of modules; from animal management and history of zoo’s to mixed species enclosure studies.

Claire said: “Once you get to a certain number of volunteers, people in the park noticed them and realise we offer volunteering. I have high hopes for the Community Action Suffolk website. Although we can run to a high standard without volunteers, they allow us to push our standards even more. It makes the keepers better at their jobs and re-ignites that passion to educate.”

I think many people have a preconceived notion that volunteering is a waste of time and you get nothing out of it purely because you are not paid – the sad reality of how money-driven people are nowadays.

However, spending just one morning there boosted by mood tremendously. Built-up stress and anxiety evaporated as soon as I stepped through the gates.

Everyone in the park was so happy and positive, and I learnt so much about the animals from the keepers, who had plenty of patience and knowledge to give.

The volunteer roles at Africa Alive include education, animal management, visitor engagement and gardens team.

To become a volunteer, visit communityactionsuffolk.org.uk .

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