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ZERO's Impact on Volunteers Lives

Volunteering is proven to have a huge number of benefits. Every year surveys by voluntary organisations report the positive impact that giving back to your community can have, with Royal Voluntary Society respondents consistently reporting improvements in mental and physical health, development of new skills, increased connection to the community, and more confidence.

But the benefits can be even more profound when the volunteer finds the perfect charity for them. In this blog we chat to 3 ZERO volunteers about the impact that getting involved with the charity has had on their lives and careers. Charities like ZCG can provide great upskilling opportunities, as well as creating amazing community cohesion, but as a volunteer-led charity we rely heavily on donations, so please consider supporting our Crowdfunder, so that we can keep supporting all of ZERO's brilliant volunteers in living fulfilling lives.

Jen Smallwood: Jen works at Kings College and as a result of volunteering at ZERO is now on Kings' Climate & Sustainability Delivery Team. Jen also leads on the Sustainable Business Network's microbusiness energy survey project.

Tom Lashbrooke: Volunteering at ZERO gave Tom clarity that he wanted to move into an environmentally focused job, and has since had a career switch to move to retrofit services planner & provider Parity Projects

Tom Lees: Tom joined us for his Uni of Surrey MSc placement during the summer of 2022, and has since gone on to start his career as an Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) Officer at Retinue Solutions.

How did you end up volunteering at ZERO? Tell us your story.

When I moved to England, I wanted to find like-minded people and make friends. I grew up in South Africa, with a lot of my experience in sustainability involving working hands-on with wildlife charities as well as working as a Campaign Manager for the Student Public Interest Research Group in the USA. I was really interested in the Sustainable Business Network (SBN) as I had attended various conferences in London where scope 3 emissions were being discussed, but no practical information or solutions were provided. I wanted to get more directly involved in finding ways to effectively tackle the “messy”, complex, all-encompassing concern that is scope 3 emissions. The SBN presented the perfect opportunity to dive right in. It was unique, the one initiative specifically tailored towards SMEs that can’t afford to hire expensive sustainability consultants and for whom scope 3 emissions are particularly crucial.

For years, I searched for a way to make a meaningful impact in my community, to contribute my skills and energy to tackle larger challenges. I tried volunteering for litter picks and one-off events but always felt limited in how much I could give. That's when I stumbled upon ZERO, and it was a revelation.

I was put in contact with ZERO and the work they were undertaking by a colleague of mine on my Masters course. At the time I was looking for somewhere where I might be able to volunteer or work as part of my course and gain some real-world experience and understanding of sustainability in the community. Everyone at ZERO was incredibly receptive and kind in supporting me in this and afforded me the opportunity to become a custodian so to gain a holistic appreciation of all the initiatives run in the ZERO space. This meant I could help in projects such as the Community Fridge, the Systems Map project run with the University, and many others.

What was running through your mind at that time?

When I first saw the earth embedded in the ZERO logo, I knew “This was going to be right up my alley”. It seemed like the place I was looking for.

When I walked into ZERO for the first time, I was greeted by vibrant walls adorned with beautiful art that showcased the incredible work already underway in the community. Organisations like Guildford Environmental Forum, the Sustainable Business Network, and the Global Centre for Clean Air Research were right at my doorstep, yet I had never heard of them before. It didn’t stop there either, it turned out there were in some cases as many as 100 volunteers working on specific projects like the River Wey water quality testing initiative that wants to one day make our waters safe to swim in. It was an instant inspiration, and my mind overflowed with ideas on how I might contribute my own skills to this wonderful community.

At the time, my sole focus was to gain an understanding of what environmental mitigation, societal equity and enrichment, and the role of business in sustainability looked like in practice. By this point in my studies, I had gained a detailed understanding of many topics within sustainability, but had not yet seen how these were being actioned on, or how understanding and cooperative society was on achieving these. ZERO enabled me to achieve exactly this through showcasing how education and collective action can lead to achieving a defined goal.

How has ZERO helped you?

ZERO helped me meet and engage with key individuals within the climate and sustainability space covering a range of expertise. It not only provided me with the space to apply my existing skills and experience in a way that felt meaningful, but has also helped me gain new skills and knowledge, and provided the opportunity to make friends that are like family.

Last but not least, it helped me legitimise my experience and expertise within the UK. For example, I have worked as a Project Lead through the SBN focused on providing free energy assessments for microbusinesses as their first step to making more energy efficient choices, developing a climate action plan, and better managing the energy crisis. I was approached by King's College London to be a part of the newly formed Climate and Sustainability Delivery Team, where I am currently advising on 2 projects - 1 focused on creating an Energy Champions Programme and the other working to embed sustainability through the SDGs into the curriculum. This has also led to me advising Farnham Town Council on their sustainability planning.

ZERO gave me a sense of belonging I haven’t had in years. It gave me the opportunity to work on causes that I’d always cared about but never had a way to express. Since joining as a volunteer I’ve written blogs, produced videos, organised events and conducted citizen-led science experiments. One of my proudest moments was helping create the Library of Things, which is a free-to-use borrowing service where you can rent items like pressure washers, thermal imaging cameras, and gazeboes. By borrowing instead of buying the community has saved £37,000+ and 6 tonnes of carbon equivalent emissions. Lastly, ZERO helped me gain new employment within an environmental consultancy, which had been a goal I’d never thought possible. I’m happy to say I’m now working on creating net-zero & decarbonisation plans for housing in the UK, which benefits the health of our citizens, addresses fuel poverty and will create tens of thousands of jobs for the economy.

ZERO allowed me the opportunity to complete my placement module for my Masters course, but also see what area of sustainability I wished to work in going forward. I have since begun working as an Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) Lead for a company based in central London as I see this as an area of great progress in sustainability. I certainly would not be where I am without the opportunity and work with ZERO.

How would you describe ZERO to someone who’s never heard of it?

I’d describe it as a climate community hub that works to engage and inform the public on various climate issues and provides opportunities to get actively involved in a number of projects based on your interests. With SBN, we help businesses wherever they are on their sustainability journey and I feel that’s the same approach we take with volunteering at ZERO. It’s a space where everyone is welcome to get involved regardless of where you are on your own personal sustainability journey.

ZERO is a playground in the best way, where you can make friends and connect with like-minded people, throwing caution to the wind and getting stuck in. It gives you a place to feel empowered to act on the climate crisis, no matter your level of expertise or availability. Whether you just need some questions answered on the practicalities of running an electric car or just need a place to vent your concerns about climate change, there’s always somebody willing to help.

ZERO is a community-led space, looking to educate and highlight sustainability issues within society through showcasing various efforts to mitigate our environmental impacts and enrich the community within which it operates.

How would things have been different for you without ZERO?

I wouldn’t have a home away from home and would not be getting approached for all these opportunities (advising Farnham town council on their sustainability plans, working with Kings team, etc…)

Without ZERO, I wouldn’t have had the courage to make the changes to my life I knew I wanted to deep down. I wouldn’t have made all my friends here and with no reason to stay, I’d have likely moved on to somewhere else or carried on living in a bubble.

I would not be in the job I am, having completed the degree I did, had it not been for my time at ZERO. Not only did it showcase efforts within the area to drive environmental mitigation, but also helped me develop communication, team leadership, and education skills.

What would you say to encourage someone to donate to ZERO's Crowdfunder?

There is nothing else like ZERO and we can’t afford to lose it when there’s still so much to be done. Community is the core of ZERO and by being an independent charity, we can continue to address issues that are important to the community. We’ve had a huge impact thus far, but our work is far from over.

ZERO isn't just another charity; it's a unique force for change in our community. It's a place where passion meets action, where diverse projects come together, and where anyone can make a real difference. I found my purpose here, and I invite you to join in shaping a better future for the local community.

It is obvious to me that spaces and initiatives such as ZERO would not survive without donations. Whether that means a financial donation, or a donation of time and effort is completely open to whoever is able to offer it. I would encourage anyone to do either having seen myself how beneficial both can be to a space such as ZERO, which is vital for the world we currently live in.

What do you hope happens next for ZERO?

I hope that with our move we could increase our influence, impact and recognition and keep spreading ZERO’s initiatives. I hope that we get the capacity to work on more projects - for example, the UrBOAs (Urban Biodiversity Opportunity Areas) project where we’re working to integrate green corridors that encourage more biodiversity in and around Guildford Town Centre, and use this as a catalyst for other towns to do the same. I would love to see the change we’re working towards happening on a larger scale and for this change to be more noticeable to the wider community.

My hope is that we can engage with more people who have lost hope and empower them to make a difference solving national problems at a local level. It’d be great to see more permanent benefits being realised like increasing the options for transport, the amount of biodiversity in our town and becoming less reliant on energy companies by supporting community energy projects.

I hope that the messages and knowledge held in the ZERO space continues to grow and its influence continues to affect individuals, surrounding businesses, and other similar community spaces. I fully understand the requirement for such spaces and what they offer in our modern society, and I hope that continues to be evident going forward.



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