Charity: Small acts of kindness will always make a difference to someone

Actress Jenny Agutter, best known for her teenage role in `The Railway Children', says that even those of us with hectic schedules can find time to volunteer for projects that will benefit our local communities. By Louise Jury.
On Saturday 1 November, more than 11,000 people are planning to go into their communities and carry out some act of selfless generosity.

Extraordinary as it may seem to those who can face little more than a trip to the supermarket and collapsing in front of the football with a beer most weekends, the more public-spirited among us are going to take part in Make a Difference Day, the UK's largest day of volunteering.

The brainchild of the charity Community Service Volunteers (CSV) and sponsored by Yellow Pages, the first such event was held last year and was designed to encourage people to give a little of their time to something of benefit to where they lived. It was about "raising care, not cash", the charity says.

Nine thousand people carried out 430 projects. Teenagers in Surrey renovated an Iron Age hill fort and electricians in Glasgow installed fire alarms in the homes of elderly people who would not otherwise have had them. Volunteers in Ulverston, Cumbria, restored an old railway station and a group in London planted seeds on waste ground to create a wild flower meadow. Jenny Agutter, the actress, joined a group to help re-decorate a residential home for elderly people with learning disabilities near where she lives in south London.

This year, the event is expected to be even bigger and Jenny Agutter is, again, among those taking part. In mid-rehearsal for the National Theatre's Christmas production of Peter Pan, she will have less time available to make her contribution. But working on the "every little helps" principle, she has decided to persuade her cast to dig out unwanted children's books and donate the lot to a good cause. She and her six-year-old son, Jonathan, will be sorting through their own bookshelves on the day.

"I work for about five charities and they rely heavily on their volunteers - that is where their money comes from," Jenny Agutter says.

"Frankly, I don't know how people in full-time jobs and mothers do it, but they do. I didn't really know much about CSV before, but the whole idea of getting people to see what volunteering is about is a good one. The thing that appeals to me most is trying to involve people in a sense of community."

It is not necessarily easy, of course. The volunteers she worked with to re-decorate the old people's home last year were terror stricken when they realised that none of them knew how to hang the wallpaper. And there was an unfortunate moment when she kindly attempted to show the new wallpaper to a resident, only to discover the old lady was blind. "Gratification is a part of volunteering but you can't always be sure you're going to get it," she says, with a wry grin.

Mostly you do, however. When she lived in Los Angeles, she and an actor friend befriended a poor but dynamic school in the suburbs and introduced the children to Shakespeare. "It really did give me an extraordinary sense of belonging, seeing these children growing up and getting to know this community. And I had great fun. We took them to see Kenneth Branagh's [film of] Henry V and showed them West Side Story. The children had no idea who Shakespeare was before we went along."

Elisabeth Hoodless, CSV's director, says this year they are hoping that some people will want to do something in their community as a practical tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales. She quotes the words of Dr Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi: "We are not paying tribute to a glossy, glamorous beautiful lady. We are not paying tribute to a person in virtue of her public position. We are paying tribute to a person who symbolised the sheer power of the human spirit to turn its own pain into a power of recognising and healing the pain of others. We are paying tribute to the eternity of small acts of kindness and to their lasting impact on people's lives."

It is the "eternity of small acts of kindness" that Elisabeth Hoodless emphasises. But she is practical too. "We know that volunteering reduces blood pressure and prolongs active life. People enjoy volunteering."

She is at pains to point out that being a volunteer need not require a massive commitment of time. Research had showed that half of those who volunteered for one day were still involved in their project six months later, but even if they were not, the smallest of acts were still positive. "In Sunderland, a group is going to give a concert and paint a mural," she says. "That will be enjoyed for years to come."

Forget about what you can't do - we can all help out in some way

A hotline has been set up for anyone who wants more information. To get an activity pack and registration form or to discuss ideas with one of the CSV team, call freephone number 0800 284533.

In Scotland, young people are going to renovate the local bus shelter. In London, residents of Cross Street in Islington plan to plant bulbs to brighten it up.

In Gloucestershire, Severn Sound radio is giving advice about the techniques used to save someone suffering from a heart attack while in Bodmin, Cornwall, volunteers will be creating disabled access to a woodland. In Sunderland, a group is giving a concert and painting a mural in an old people's home and there will be a beach sweep to tidy the shoreline on the Isle of Wight. In Sheffield, volunteers are going to clear a tow-path, and a Birmingham residents' association will collect toys for a local children's hospital.

A CSV spokeswoman said: "The possibilities are endless - plant a tree, paint a classroom with colleagues from work, take someone housebound to an appointment, give a disabled group a day out to remember. Every idea is a good idea."