What fun! Volunteering with special need kids

Many moons ago, my friend Sally and I wanted to volunteer at a local children’s home – to feed, walk, clean, read to and play with the children. All of the children had special needs in some way, some more serious than others. We initially started this as part of the community requirement of our Duke of Edinburgh award. When our three months were up, we were enamoured with the kids and ended up spending our Sunday afternoons with them for two and a half to three years.  We learned very quickly that, although at first we had thought we were doing a ‘good deed’, we were rewarded a thousand times more just by getting to know and love these kids.  We were 15 years old when we started, yet I know the experience is as relevant for any age group.

Getting started

In those days, the nurse/carer to child ratio should have been much bigger, so they were glad when we turned up – fresh faced, eager and a little nervous.  These days I’m sure you would get training but we were simply thrust into the thick of it, learning on the job.  It was wonderful work, a great mix of physical exertion, social interaction, and both teaching and learning.

The kids absolutely loved going for a walk or a stroll outside in their wheelchairs. Being outdoors was a bit of an adventure and they adored the open space and air.  They could interact with nature spontaneously and with one another in a different setting.

My saddest event was on my second Sunday when I went to take one of the little girls for a ‘walk’. I learned that she had passed away during the week. I’d been proud that I’d mastered her complex stroller the week before.  It was devastating for me, even though I’d only known her for one afternoon, and it taught me how fragile life could be. Some time later, I felt strangely grateful that at least I’d been able to meet her and take her outdoors amongst the flowers before she died.  Through these experiences of being with special needs kids, I began to appreciate different things about life. Time took on a different quality to it and you enjoyed the connection while you could, in the moment.

Lessons from dinner time

Pretty soon we had our regular tasks and we viewed activities such as feeding a child as an opportunity to interact with them. Sally and I instinctively rotated ourselves around to different kids each week, using meal time to engage close up with some of the quieter ones. We were novices and, as any parent would know, meals can be a challenging time!  After several days of dutifully spooning food in and lots of wiping, we noticed that some of these seemingly inactive children were quite interested in us. Their eye contact, gestures and communications started to increase.

One little boy, Dean, took forever to feed. He’d roll the food around in his mouth for what seemed like eons.  It didn’t look very appetising and I wouldn’t have wanted to swallow it either!  One day he took a big breath, paused, and completely sprayed me with the food he’d been chewing.  I was absolutely taken aback and the shock must have shown on my face. After looking a little scared for a second, he burst into the biggest grin and started giggling. It was such a contagious sound and I laughed and laughed and gave him a tickle. He never did it again, yet our relationship shifted in that moment.  He was letting me know that there was a real little someone inside and, even though he couldn’t talk, he had a personality.

Dean became one of my favourites.  It was wonderful to see him develop over the years as we played together. The emotions you feel and relationships you build are one of the greatest benefits of this work and, as it turns out, this is good for your own mental health.

Lessons from Ben

Being with special needs children requires a lot of patience. I learned to never underestimate the impact you might be having.  Sometimes you are sowing seeds that might not germinate for a long time, but they are still being absorbed.

Another little boy, Ben, used to make noises but couldn’t form words. He had a stern little face with an often furrowed brow and when Sally saw him, she said “Hallo ‘allo ‘allo! What’s all this then?”, just as a stereotypical policeman would have said in the old days.  I started to say it too.  It became our little joke with him.  One day, shortly after arriving, I walked up and bent over to say hi to him.  He looked up at me and said “allo allo allo allo allo allo allo!” I couldn’t believe it!  We’d never heard him say a word and never expected he would!  We were overjoyed and tearful at the same time.

After this we proceeded as if every child could hear and understand us, whether we could tell or not.  It was an essential piece of cognitive learning that I could never have understood simply by being told – you had to experience it in real life.

Young Talent Time

One of the children’s favourite things was watching Young Talent Time on Sunday afternoons. After a busy week, the children were plopped in front of the TV,  just like today’s electronic ‘babysitters’.  Some stared fairly disinterestedly at the shows, however when YTT came on the screen it was a transformation. Their heads popped up and the room was alive with music and movement!  We would sing and dance and they’d smile, laugh, make noises and move any part of their bodies they could. I guess they were like many other young kids in Australia at the time!

Alot of the time we were busy being just plain silly. I enjoyed the freedom and creativity of being able to goof around like that, something I didn’t typically do.  At the time I thought I was a serious grown up, being young at heart with the kids. It would, no doubt, be even better now as a real grown up!  We’d make funny faces, do craft, dance and generally act the goat. I would always sleep well that night.

Nearing the end

After about two and a half years, as we grew up, our Sunday social life began to change. We’d go to a movie or ice skate in town, and we couldn’t always get back to be on time.  Sometimes we didn’t visit at all.  Not far from the entrance to the building, there was a big gated wooden stairwell.  One afternoon I went in on my own, a little later than usual. Standing by the gate were a number of the children, waiting expectantly for us. Their faces lit up when they saw me.  It broke my heart, because I realised that they’d been there the previous week when neither of us turned up.  I wondered how long they had waited before they wandered off and who, if anyone, was the last to leave.

For a while, we were more vigilant about going. Eventually we decided that it was kinder to not go at all, rather than have them expecting us each week.  In hindsight, I wish we’d handled it differently.  Perhaps we could have slowly reduced our visits and perhaps gone once a month. We might have found some younger teenagers or others in the community and told them how rewarding it was, so that they could take over from us.  It must have been like ripping the bandaid off.  We weren’t special in any way though we were young, open and fresh to new experiences – and different faces to and more gullible than their everyday nurses and carers!


These kids were more courageous than I could ever be.  Often since then I’ve forgotten and become self-absorbed or caught up in the busyness of work and life. But when I think back though to these children and how keen they were to learn, interact and have fun, it reminds me how precious life can be, if we choose to slow down and simply ‘be’ or ‘be with’.  It is a much healthier way of being.

I still hold that little girl, Dean, Ben and others fondly in my memory. We were simply spending our Sunday afternoons with some kids, hopefully giving the staff some much needed ‘time out’.  I have so much respect for people who care for special needs kids – they have responsibilities where as we had none. It isn’t easy. I know though, like Sally and me, that they experience moments of sheer joy over the seemingly simplest shifts. They are not simple at all – they are the result of hundreds and thousands of hours of interactions and care, incidental and intentional. If you get the chance, try volunteering with special needs children. It is so rewarding and you’ll even reap the health benefits of belonging, cognitive learning, physical activities and loads of social interaction.