Friday 3 August 2018. It’s the first official day of the Edinburgh Festival, and the locals tell me that they’ve never seen a first day so busy.
It’s my first time at the festivals – which, given that I love theatre, is something I don’t quite understand – and I’m delighted to get to see it through the eyes of some of those giving up their own time to help make us visitors get the most from it.
I work at Spirit of 2012, which is one of the funders of Edinburgh’s Festival City volunteer programme. Spirit of 2012 is a charitable trust set up by the Big Lottery fund after the London Olympic and Paralympic Games with a mission to invest in projects that improve wellbeing, and make people more active, creative and connected in their communities.
Edinburgh at festival time is very like London during the 2012 Games – buzzing and exciting, but potentially overwhelming. There is a need for projects that help everyone feel connected to such fantastic events in the city.
After a small pilot last year, we are supporting the festivals with £50,000 to triple its volunteering pool to 120 and reach out to groups and communities who wouldn’t necessarily have considered volunteering. In turn, these volunteers are ambassadors for the city – helping tourists and locals alike feel more welcome in the festival environment.
Some of those people might be recent arrivals to the city, including refugees, others may have lived here all their lives but don’t see the festivals as something for ‘people like them’. Some might be recovering from ill-health, or be ready to come back to work after a period of unemployment. Others have disabilities or long-term health conditions, and welcome a volunteering opportunity which fully caters for their needs.
After wandering through the craziness of the royal mile, I spot Johnny – Year 1 volunteer turned Communications Officer – in his orange t-shirt outside the library. Johnny is my guide to this year’s programme.
I join him with some other volunteers on a tea-break. They’ve just helped a panicking Chinese tourist with a small child find her AirBnb, and are getting ready to go out for shift number two.
The volunteers I speak to have many reasons for getting involved. One man is an encyclopaedia of information about bus routes in the city, and has already put his vast knowledge to use directing tourists throughout the morning. He’s been paired with a shy boy who wants to see his city in a new light.
There is something extremely brave about putting yourself out there in a bright orange t-shirt, and having to be prepared for any questions that come your way.
On Sunday, I meet Johnny again, along with Marion from Volunteers Edinburgh. Marion tells me it’s rare that a volunteering programme gets to work with such a range of partners – from the arts sector itself, to organisations like Lothian buses who are providing free transport for the volunteers throughout the festival.
She’s bowled over by how well new recruits were slotting into their roles, and is already looking forward to making 2019 even bigger and better.
Edinburgh has a fantastic energy, and it demands you be energetic in return, so by the end of my weekend I am, it is fair to say, pretty tired. But although he has been non-stop, Johnny still has a permanent smile.
For all the effort he is putting in, he is clear that he is getting a huge amount out of this experience: he brims with confidence, and he’s having fun. He, like me, will be back next year.
Click here for the Edinburgh Festival City website.