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This student got her health and her life back through volunteering

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A chat with 22-year-old Holly Watson indicates nothing out of the ordinary. She sounds healthy and upbeat, ready for her next chapter in life of continuing to pursue her degree. She’s moving to London from her native Wellow, Somerset, and gearing up for the changes of city life. She has hobbies and passions and goals.

But these normal parts of life were all put in limbo several years ago when Watson was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). A series of illnesses indicated that something was seriously wrong.

“I had a series of one illness after another…I just never recovered”, she says. “I had really bad temperatures, aches and pains; I couldn’t really talk in full sentences”.

With the help of a doctor, she finally had a name for her condition.

“It was finally like, what I was feeling — there was a reason for it”.

The sense of relief turned to a sense of feeling daunted as Watson came to terms with the fact that there is no cure for CFS. The symptoms kept getting worse until she was bedbound and left with no choice but to break from her studies.

Her life became consumed by needing to sleep constantly. Even eating was difficult.

“My mother would wake me up and kind of force-feed me a biscuit, and then I would go back to sleep”, she says.

Meanwhile, Holly had to understand that her life would be taking a drastic turn. She had planned to be a physical therapist and eventually transition into equine therapy, following her interest in horses. She wanted to travel after university — Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and South America especially interested her.

Her diagnosis stopped these plans in their tracks.

“[I realised] that’s not going to be happening for a long time”, she says.

Holly slowly regained her energy, but was looking for more fulfilling ways to spend her time.

“[Energy levels] would still fluctuate day-to-day, but in general I was working a part-time job and things”, she says. “That was an OK level. I still felt like I had extra time, and at the time I was still thinking about whether I wanted to go into a healthcare route eventually, later on in life”.

When considering these factors — her energy levels, her spare time, her interest in healthcare and helping others — Holly discovered volunteering, something she says keeps her energised and busy.

She started with a Red Cross programme of helping victims of fires or floods. This became a bit of a problem when she realised many fires and floods occur in the middle of the night.

“It didn’t really work, as much as I wanted it to”, she says.

Because the Red Cross offers many options for volunteering, Holly was able to switch gears and help out in a different way.

She now volunteers up to two hours a week at homes of people who are socially or physically isolated.

“[I’m] just trying to help them reconnect with their community," she says. "For some people it’s just conversation; they just want to talk to someone because they’re incredibly lonely. For other people, they might’ve lost their confidence a little bit”.

For the latter group, Watson will help patients use buses or go to the library or a shop. She’ll work with them for six to ten weeks.

“I do genuinely really enjoy it. I’ve had some really lovely service users who are very inspiring in their own ways”, she says.

This autumn, Holly will move to London to continue pursuing her degree - and will hold on to what she has learned in her past year as a volunteer.

“I’ve realised that everyone has their own little battles…it kind of opens your eyes to realise that everyone’s got their own things going on behind closed doors, and it’s okay”.

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