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Lou Baigneres is an incoming second-year Economics with a Year Abroad student doubling as a Volunteer Sports Coach with KEEN London. KEEN London supports children with disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder. She tells us about her empowering and revitalising experience of spending Saturdays being active with the kids.

Tell us a little about your volunteering

Since December 2021, I have been volunteering with KEEN London to support children with disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder. On Saturdays, from 10 AM to 2 PM,  I practice a range of sports and activities with our “athletes” in South London, including basketball, cricket, running and drawing. There are also sessions in East London (Saturdays) and North London (Sundays), but I chose the most convenient location from UCL.

As part of the weekly sessions, I participated in the Hackney School Challenge with the athletes. All those who were present ran the one-mile race, and we were rewarded with medals. It was a very fun and rewarding experience for all of us!

KEEN London also organises parties for athletes and volunteers and social events for volunteers only, but unfortunately, I have not been able to attend any of them yet.

How did you find out about the role?

In the summer before starting university, I really wanted to be part of a volunteering experience, so I decided to have a look at the directory put in place by UCL’s Volunteering Service. I was mainly looking for a role in which I could either work with children (as I had done a lot of babysitting beforehand) or that involved sports. Luckily, I found an organisation where I could practise many sports and activities with children.

I then had a look at KEEN’s website, submitted an application with a referral letter and finally did my training to be a KEEN London coach in early December. During the training, I was given all the practical information, shown how to react to different situations, and taught a few words of Makaton.

Why did you want to become a volunteer?

Before being a coach at KEEN London, I had volunteered in a primary school in Cambodia (Projects Abroad), and I found this experience particularly exciting. I really enjoyed teaching children English, so I wanted to be part of a new, more regular experience in London where I could work with kids again.

What difference do you feel you’ve made by volunteering?

I believe the most significant difference I’ve made through volunteering with KEEN London is allowing children who often lack access to sports activities to play with others in a safe environment. Children with disabilities generally find it challenging to engage in regular activities. They also do not usually get to experience the social aspect of sports as their peers do. At KEEN London, we encourage them to play in groups to make as many friends as possible.

KEEN volunteers also give parents a bit of time for themselves every weekend. Caring for a child is not easy, and the weekly sessions allow them to spend time doing things that they are unable to do during the week.

What impact has volunteering had on you?

Volunteering gave me a break from studying while doing exercise at the same time. Initially, I didn’t think it would be a lot of physical activity, but after every single session, I went home feeling very tired. It also helped me develop my communication, leadership, and teamwork skills, which will all be invaluable for my personal development and future career.

What’s the best thing about volunteering?

The best thing about volunteering for me has to be seeing the smiles and excitement of the children when they arrive at a session. They know they will be having a lot of fun (and volunteers too!), so they look forward to the session during the whole week. Seeing them evolve through sports, both personally and as a group, is beautiful.

And the most challenging? How did you overcome the challenges? 

The most challenging part of volunteering has been not knowing how to react to situations when they happen for the first time, such as a child biting or scratching other children and volunteers. However, through the help of the lead volunteer and more experienced coaches, I quickly learned to deal with this in the best way possible.

Tell us about something memorable that’s happened to you whilst volunteering

In one of my early sessions, I saw that one of the children I was working with did not get involved in activities and would not communicate with other children. However, he became very good friends with two other athletes in a few weeks only, through playing basketball, cricket, and even just running around. It made me very happy to see that my efforts to make the children play together had been successful and that I positively impacted them.

Would you recommend volunteering? If so, why?

I would recommend volunteering to anyone who has a few spare hours every week or even every month. Overall, volunteering is a great and very fun experience, which allows you to meet many people. For example, at KEEN London, I met other London students (including from UCL) but also professionals with very interesting and diverse backgrounds.