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When everyone has a home

028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

Sarah and Stephen - from volunteer to employee

Sarah Corrigan is our policy and public affairs officer and Stephen Fennell, one of our housing advisers with Housing Rights. However they both initially got involved with Housing Rights as volunteers on the advice helpline, which proved a crucial stepping stone to employment in the housing advice sector.

In 2009, not long after the so called ‘credit crunch,’ Sarah and Stephen both graduated in Law, from Northumbria University and Queen’s University respectively, at a time when the country was experiencing an economic downturn.

Stephen says: “I may have graduated with a Law degree, but I was working in retail as it was so difficult to get employment related to my degree, as you needed experience. I was initially inspired to volunteer in May 2010 as I realised practical experience was the best way for me to get a foot on the ladder and to make use of my skills.”

Newcastle (Co Down) native Sarah, similarly, was motivated to enhance her CV: “As part of my Law course I had taken part in a student pro-bono clinic where I specialised in housing for two years during my degree. This suited me as I had always been interested in human rights law.

“When I returned home to Northern Ireland it was through word of mouth I heard of Housing Rights, and it seemed the perfect fit for my skills and experience. It wasn’t without challenges though, NI legislation was different to English law so I had to do a lot of learning!”

Unlike Sarah, Stephen had very little housing knowledge. He says: “It was a twist of fate that I ended up in Housing Rights. I went to Volunteer Now and they suggested them. They phoned Housing Rights and who were happy to get me in as soon as possible, so the rest was history. I am just glad they answered the phone that day!”

Remarkably, Stephen started volunteering not long after Sarah had been offered paid work, so Sarah ended up becoming his ‘buddy’. Stephen comments: “The best advice for anyone who is starting a volunteer role is just to get stuck in. Sarah encouraged me to do that, and it was very helpful as she had been in the same position as me. If you are dedicated and put the effort in, you will get so much out of the experience.”

Sarah agrees: “I loved the environment and the ethos of the work. I think you truly have to believe in the work the organisation does, and even though I only volunteered in the short term, it truly increased my confidence to then apply for paid work, and also gave me the opportunity to show what I could do.

“I was so lucky that my experiences translated into paid employment, a perfect outcome for both me and the organisation!!”

And what’s more, birds of a feather Stephen and Sarah have flourished in Housing Rights. Sarah won a Chartered Institute of Housing Rising Star Award in 2013, and Housing Rights were also in a position to offer a work placement as an apprentice solicitor for her Institute of Professional Legal Studies course in 2012.

Sarah says: “Everything has happened because I took that initial step to volunteer. Volunteering can really help as it can act as a taster to figure out what you want to do in your career. I loved my experience and I haven’t looked back as I have been privileged to grow with the organisation.”

Stephen continues: “Following in Sarah’s footsteps studied for my professional legal qualification, with Housing Rights acting as my placement.

“I honestly wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for volunteering on the advice helpline. It changed my life and gave me the opportunity to build my confidence and also develop transferable employability skills, and work on complex legal work.”

Both Stephen and Sarah encourage anyone considering getting involved in volunteering to make the leap.

Stephen says: “If anyone is thinking about volunteering just do it! It is the most rewarding role to know that you are making a difference by helping people. Plus you never know what you may get out of it, I’m proof of that!”

Find out more about volunteering with Housing Rights and how you can apply.