Laura Beresford works in the communications team for Restless Development UK and volunteered with us in Zambia. Here she talks about the importance of community.
What is community?
It is a group of people living in the same place or having a certain characteristic in common, or it’s imagined through shared interests and attitudes.
I love my community of friends and I love the people I work with. But a few years ago I started to feel like this wasn’t enough, that I was missing certain relationships.
Most of my close friends are the same age as me and are from similar backgrounds. We get along so well because of our shared experiences and similarity. My colleagues at work have the same values as I do and face the same struggles.
But this bubble blinds me from the perspectives, stories, celebrations and trials of other people who I’m surrounded by every day.
The first thing I decided to do was to start volunteering as a young leader with The Brownie Guides, and it was my one night a week to see the world through the eyes of a 6 year old girl. What’s her favourite thing about school? What’s the biggest concern in her life right now? Who’s the person she misses most when we’re at camp? And I would learn so much from them…they knew more about the election and history than I did, and taught me to be creative again.
I would leave feeling rejuvenated. Their energy fed my energy and I suddenly felt involved in the area I lived, that I belonged there a little more. I was no longer just returning to a house, I was returning to a neighbourhood of people.
Then I lived in Zambia for three months. I was overwhelmed by the human connection in the community I stayed in. Friends would turn up at the house for dinner or tea, children would come and play, we worked with the teachers at school, and the staff at the clinic, and would go to church at the weekend just to be a more solid part of the community network. Every single day was a series of ‘Hi, how are you?’ from strangers and friends we walked past, something desperately missing from the city life I experienced in the UK.
I wanted to continue in this vein when I got home so last summer I started volunteering on Sunday’s at Akwaaba, a refugee and migrant social drop-in. Here are people from all over the world being welcomed and supported by local residents and each other, each with drastically different stories to tell. As I arrive each time to a series of friendly faces I think ‘where else would a group of homeless Polish men, a graphic designer from Syria, and a Jamaican OAP have lunch together?’ and all the crazy, awful things that are going on in the world momentarily disappear in an open environment of socialising, laughter, and learning.
Talking to the people here breaks stereotypes of what I thought it means to be homeless, or to be a refugee. Afterwards I positively bounce home thinking about the connections I have made and the friendship that is fostered there.
I also recently started going to church. I’m not religious but I go for discussions that come from meeting new people and, once again, the church community. There is something extremely special about walking into a building full of strangers and knowing that each one of them, no matter what their background, political beliefs, or interests, is going to welcome you with open arms.
One of my favourite new friends there is a right-wing, introverted, economics student, who doesn’t believe in feminism and is six years younger than me. I’m a loud, strident feminist, who studied drama and will talk to anyone. The only thing we have in common is that we both like swimming. But we still get on like a house on fire, he has a cracking sense of humour, and the conversation is never dull.
Had I not started taking part in my local and global community in this way, I might never have met people like Henry, or shared a cup of tea with Pawel, my homeless friend at Akwaaba, or learnt how to be ambitious and humble at the same time from Gershom in Zambia, or been made to overcome my fear of heights by Sasha at Brownie camp.
And that is why these things are often the highlights of my week. They’re opportunities for us to support each other in any way we can.
Seeing relationships blossom between the most unlikely characters is heart-warming and charming and serves as a constant reminder that my age, and my concerns, are not the only things that exist right now.
So if you are looking to enrich your life then I implore you to get involved in your community.
In the words of this wise, but unknown, author…
“Become friends with people who aren’t your age. Hang out with people whose first language isn’t the same as yours. Get to know someone who doesn’t come from your social class.
This is how you see the world. This is how you grow.”