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Crisis volunteer finds joy in helping others

The Volunteer of the Year, Paula-Sirkka Vähämäki from Ylöjärvi, says that the number of calls to the national crisis helpline has exploded during the Covid-19 pandemic. Volunteering brings energy and meaning to the seasoned volunteer’s life.

Loneliness. Worrying about loved ones. Relationship on trial. Financial problems. 

The number of calls to the crisis helpline has increased because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The phone is constantly ringing, regardless of the time of the day. 

‘I don’t remember seeing anything like this during my 21-year long career’, says the Volunteer of the Year Paula-Sirkka Vähämäki.

From mid-April to the end of November, she has answered 837 phone calls, even though she is on call only a few hours at a time. Extremely long helpline queues have made her take extra shifts, especially during the night and early morning hours – when help is most needed. The shutdowns and exceptional circumstances have caused anxiety to which Vähämäki tries to respond by listening, talking, and being present. If necessary, the caller is forwarded to emergency or other services.

Vähämäki has encountered Finnish people in crisis long before the Covid-19. She has worked in the Association for Mental Health in Tampere’s Osviitta Crisis Center for over 20 years and has been involved in volunteering even longer.

‘In addition to paid work, I was interested in volunteering. My journey with volunteering started when the city of Tampere sought volunteers for Debriefing crisis work training in 1995. I got interested, applied for the training, and got in’, Vähämäki says. 

In addition to working at the crisis centre, Vähämäki is still doing Debriefing crisis work as a volunteer. She also records talking newspapers for the visually impaired and works in palliative care. 

Vähämäki is a vocational teacher in food service, and she has pursued a long career, for example, as a food service director at the city of Tampere and catering manager at the Pirkanmaa Hospital District. Volunteer work became even more important than before when Vähämäki was granted a disability pension after a failed back surgery in 2012. 

‘Volunteering helped me cope with the situation. It made me feel useful when I was not capable of doing my job anymore. Volunteering felt like a new opportunity and gave me strength for everyday life.’

According to studies, volunteering helps not only those in need, but also those doing the volunteering. Volunteering provides sense of purpose, community, and involvement. Vähämäki confirms that and adds that she also gets different perspectives on life and constantly learns new things from client meetings and volunteering trainings. 

Sometimes challenging situations come up. Crisis situations that have similarities with your own life may be challenging and moving. The crisis may concern, for example, people the same age as your daughter or grandchildren. However, Vähämäki praises the counselling and peer support that has been provided by the crisis centre for the volunteers – there has always been someone to talk to. Vähämäki’s daughter, four grandchildren, and friends are also a source of support and joy in her life.

‘Folk dance, riding, and other exercise are also essential for a granny like me’, Vähämäki says with a twinkle in her eye.

Although difficult moments are inevitable, volunteering has always given more than it has taken. Vähämäki specifically emphasises this. 

‘Volunteering brings joy and purpose to life. I would like to say to other volunteers that being who you are and doing the best you can with what you have is good enough.’

The Volunteer of the Year is also a volunteering ambassador. With her own example, Vähämäki wishes to encourage others to get involved and help in their own ways. She reminds that even the smallest act can have a meaningful impact.

‘I hope that especially young people will become interested in volunteering. After the Covid-19 pandemic is over, volunteers will still be needed.’

Text: Annika Raveala

Translation: Hanna Väisänen

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