Volunteering to empower

Posted on the 23rd May 2018

The roots of my volunteering lie in the toughest period of my life.

I came out as gay at 22. In the midst of suicidal depression, I began realising how detrimental hiding my sexuality and mental health struggles over the previous decade had been. I’d tried desperately to be a ‘normal’ straight man, afraid of who I really was. This prevented me from ever learning to accept and becoming comfortable with my true self. I was storing mental health and self-esteem issues that have taken well into my twenties to process.

Something that kept me going during this time was an idea, somewhere in the back of my mind, that if I made it through, I wouldn’t want my struggle to be in vain. Coming out the other side, I wanted to prevent other young people from having to struggle as I did, or reach crisis points like mine.

Just Like Us

While studying for a master’s degree at University College London in 2016, I encountered the newly-founded charity Just Like Us (JLU). JLU trains university students to speak in UK schools, sharing their stories, and in doing so fighting homo-, bi- and transphobia, and championing LGBT+ equality. It seemed like the opportunity I needed – using my story to empower others. Tentatively, I signed up.

Just Like Us volunteer running a school workshop session.

Empowering others gives only half the picture. Little did I know the immeasurably positive impact that volunteering with Just Like Us would have on me.

Though I was finally open about my sexuality and mental health with those closest to me, feelings of fear and shame about myself lingered. Speaking in schools about my own experience was the step I needed to start owning my story and accept my sexuality and my struggle as essential parts of what makes me, me.

Previously, I’d barely spoken in front of an audience of more than 30. And never ever about such personal stuff. I was terrified before my first assembly, which I delivered solo to 320 year 9s in an east London school. Yet I emerged buzzing from what was an exhilarating, empowering experience. After my talk, students asked genuinely thoughtful and kind questions about me and my story. I remember thinking, if this has helped even one of these kids get closer to accepting themselves, it’s worth it.

The more I’ve delivered my story through assemblies and workshops, the more naturally it has come to me. I’ve now spoken to over 2,000 kids, and it’s transformed me in ways I’d never anticipated.

The icing on the cake? Last November, I gave assemblies at my own secondary school. This was a major milestone in my journey – I’d come full circle, and laid some remaining demons to rest. The 14-year-old Tom wouldn’t have dreamed he could ever do something like this. It’s given me hope for the future.

Volunteering really is for all. I would especially say, for anyone going through struggles or difficulties: one day, you too could use your experience to volunteer. It empowers others, yes, but it can also help you empower yourself.

Tom Doughty

Tom has volunteered for Just Like Us (London) since 2016.

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