Volunteering for the I.H.S.

October, 2013, sitting on my couch, Paul Dunne texts me.
“Do you fancy coming to Westmeath for an adventure weekend?”
“Absolutely. When?”
“This weekend.”
“Hmm… this must have a catch… what do I have to do?”
“Mind a load of teenagers…”
I know Paul a long time – I thought that if he was asking he was either desperate or else he thought I’d like it – it was probably both to be fair. I said yes.

AGM March 2016
I’ve been looking after these teenagers regularly for a few years now, and I am starting to know most of them quite well. Some of them even know that my name is not “Tall Paul” now. Some of them even say hello to me when I pass them in the corridors… teenagers are delightful.

From hour one of day one the Youth Group immediately set about torturing me – brain teasers, games where you have to work out the rules as you play, puzzles. Anything that they knew I didn’t know how to play, or that would take me out of my comfort zone, was the games they wanted to play. Like any true apprentices of Paul Dunne, not one of them gave me a single clue about any of the rules for the games and I was left to work these out over the course of about 3 hours. Torture. I think the group immediately felt comfortable with me because Paul told them they could relentlessly wind me up and that not only would he not give out, he’d actively encourage it. However, what I never realised until years later is that I make the kids do the exact same thing. Get out of your comfort zone, make a show of yourself, instantly tear down your defences and worries and become part of the group. It worked so well I did not even realise I was doing it – or that they were doing it to me. Being able to do that has served me well countless times in the Society and I am always grateful to Paul and my tormentors for those first few days.

Since then it has been nearly three years of pure fun. People always ask me “What got you into that?” and I always just say “Paul”, but the reason I keep coming back is everything else. I’ve built forts, played shout-run, had eggs splattered on my head, won a treasure hunt and Crystal Maze, archery, climbed up a tower of milk crates that I was building as I was climbing (while attached to a harness), played laser tag in the forest at night, hummed songs at complete strangers for hours on end while they held a phone to their forehead, given and taken a fair share of slagging, sang (badly), danced (excellently), had a drink or two with amazing people and of course, ended up in a pizza shop in Northern Ireland ordering 14 large pizzas at 10pm for a group of hungry (and by definition; cranky) teenagers! I’ve also made friends and have genuinely been taken back by the kindness and welcoming nature of so many of the people in the Society.

The one thing that stood out to me immediately is the closeness of the Society. The Society looks after everyone extremely well, and speaking purely from my own perspective; they especially look after the volunteers well. In my experience, every single volunteer that helps out is always more than happy to do so. Fiona has a great bunch of volunteers which she looks after amazingly well. In turn, every single volunteer I work with looks after their group amazingly well. No matter what group of volunteers, no matter what age group that group is given, no matter what location – the volunteers are willing to go above and beyond for this Society. It was something that struck me from day one, and still surprises me now. Not that it should surprise me – every single one of the volunteers are extremely dedicated to the Society, which is a testament to them and the IHS as well. On a personal note, I would do anything I could for the Society and hope to be still helping out for years to come. Some might say that that’s just because I want to retain my Crystal Maze trophy, and those people would be right, but I also want to win all the other competitions the Society think up too!

It’s not only the fun that keeps me here though. Even now this group of people still surprise me. On the last day of the AGM, we went to a talk called “The History of the IHS”. The last few feedback forms had told us that some of the Youth Group were looking for something with a bit more substance than just games, and let’s face it – the games are less fun when they don’t get to make a show of me and drive me insane for 3 hours. From chatting to the Youth Group they told us that they wanted something more adult, and they told us that they would like to go to some of the adult classes and/or talks – so this was chosen as their first expedition – after Happy Gilmore, obviously.

As I said above, the closeness of this Society is something that always amazes me. These are more than just people who meet up two or three times a year, some of these people are genuinely close friends. You can see it everywhere you go on the weekends. From the children all the way up to the eldest members – this is a close Society. I never fully understood why until I went to that talk. To see the efforts that have gone into the IHS, just even to survive, blew me away. To see the politics, the sacrifices, the losses that some of these people underwent together was incredible. Seeing the Society in its early days, trying to stay afloat while fighting for basic human rights in the 80’s and 90’s was a humbling experience. I sat in a room with people who had carved out and shared their own little piece of Irish history, and I realised then why they were all so close. I was very proud to be part of something like the IHS that day.

To say I’ve enjoyed my time with the IHS would be a massive understatement. I can’t remember ever even entertaining the thought of not going ever since the first night I spent in Westmeath – except maybe when Sam was screaming “GET UUUUUP” while banging pots and pans together on that first morning. That aside, it’s been a wonderful experience and again, it’s something I hope to continue in some shape or form for the foreseeable future. I should mention all the IHS staff now, who have never been anything but amazing to me. They give consideration to everything and help us to do our jobs as best we can. Volunteers always get a lot of credit, and I think they should get just as much as we do.

To everyone; staff, volunteers, parents, kids and anyone else. Thanks for having me, and making me feel like part of something I think is extremely special.

Jay (Tall Paul)

March 2016