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Philomena Mulligan

We should all give something back if we can

Philomena Mulligan

Philomena tells us how she put the skills from her career to good use as an Administration Volunteer and Support Volunteer. And what giving back has given to her.

I like to say that I went to the University of Life and have a degree in common sense. I spent about 20 years working in hotel management, followed by 13 in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. My first experience of volunteering was taking meeting minutes for the local Talking Newspaper – a service which my mother still uses.

I didn’t have any strong personal connection with MS until I was approached by the Chair (now Group Coordinator) of the Fermanagh Group. She’d heard I was good at flower arranging and asked me to help put some hampers and prizes together for a raffle. Once I’d made that connection, she soon persuaded me to join the group.

It was a time of change for the MS Society, with groups becoming more accountable for their actions. And some of the long-standing volunteers had decided to stand down. I had evenings and weekends free, so agreed to become Secretary (now Administration Volunteer). That was back in 2010 and I’ve been part of the Fermanagh Group ever since!

Supporting a scattered community

The Fermanagh Group covers a large, mainly rural, county in Northern Ireland. Because of this, we have formal agreements with professionals across the area to provide services for people with MS. Things like yoga, Pilates and reflexology.

The group pays 75% of the cost, and the service user pays just 25%. We’re fortunate to have the funds to do this. We keep on top of all the agreements we have in place so we can help potential service users.

Our group feels like a family. And the social element is a very big thing. With people living so far apart, the opportunity to get together is highly valued. So at least three times a year, I help organise an event in Enniskillen - the main town in the centre of the county.

We always use the same hotel and offer our guests a free meal. We usually get about 50 to 60 people attending and it’s great fun! There's also a free draw for people with MS and a ticketed fundraising draw for some really good prizes!

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Playing to my strengths

I’m a very organised person. And my work background gave me skills such as taking minutes in meetings, which have been useful in my Administration Volunteer role.

Things have obviously changed over the years. When I started with the group, I inherited books of handwritten minutes going back to the very first meeting. But I started using a laptop instead and printed them out.

I also used to print off invitations to events and post them out. But now I can save time and money by emailing them or putting them on Facebook. I’m very aware that some of our contacts aren’t online, or have poor memories. So I still make a lot of phone calls to make sure nobody is forgotten.

It's always been a challenge to make sure we have up-to-date contact information for everyone. These days, we ask anyone who attends a social to fill out a form with their details. I then compare it with the list on the central database and make changes if necessary. The paper form has a tick box to allow us to keep someone’s details and is shredded as soon as possible. My Civil Service job was in data protection, so I’m very hot on all that!

Expanding my skill set

As a volunteer, you can always keep learning. In 2018, I completed the training to also be a Support Volunteer for the group. But I don’t have MS myself. So it’s right that most of the one-to-one support falls to the other two Support Volunteers, who can share their lived experience.

I play my part by raising awareness of MS and the different ways it affects people’s lives, wherever I can. I’m also constantly promoting what the Fermanagh Group has to offer. I know several people with MS who aren’t interested, but that’s fine. At least they know we’re here if they change their minds!

It’s all about giving back

I’d encourage anyone to try volunteering. Especially if you have a particular set of skills to bring to a role. Even if you don’t have a personal connection to the cause, just get stuck in and you’ll soon feel involved. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time out of your life.

We should all give something back if we can, especially in our local area. And giving back comes with its own rewards. I’ve made so many friends through volunteering and I enjoy contributing to such a supportive group. Of course, there are difficulties and frustrations now and again, but you get over them and move on.

When I see someone’s mobility improve through exercise sessions which I’ve helped to put in place, or hear how much somebody has enjoyed a social I’ve organised, it makes my day. Knowing my contribution has made a difference makes it all worthwhile. And the messages of support I’ve recently been sent on receiving an MS Society Impact Award have just been the cherry on the cake!

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