The roots of my volunteering lie in the toughest period of my life.
I came out as gay at 22. In the midst of a 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 ever learning to accept and become comfortable with my true self. I was storing mental health and self-esteem issues that have taken well into my twenties to come 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 having to struggle as I did, nor reach crisis points like mine.
It was while studying for a masters at UCL in 2016 that I first encountered Just Like Us, in its early days of recruiting and training LGBT+ university students to become ambassadors. It seemed the opportunity I needed - using my story to empower others. Tentatively, I signed up.
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 shame and fear 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 struggles 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 nines 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. To empower others, yes, but also to empower yourself.
Find out more about volunteering here.