This month, Durham University graduate Elizabeth Hoodless celebrates 40 years with the UK's largest volunteering charity. She talks to Women's Editor Christen Pears.

WHEN Elisabeth Hoodless joined the charity Community Service Volunteers in 1963, she was the first ever member of staff. Forty years on, the organisation employs 700 members of staff and provides volunteering opportunities for 120,000 people each year. Throughout that time, Elisabeth has been a leading figure in the voluntary sector, encouraging thousands of people to give up their time to help others.

Elisabeth, who is originally from Bristol, graduated from Durham University in 1962 with a degree in social studies. While studying at what was then King's College but is now Newcastle University, she developed a life-long love for the North-East and also met her future husband, Donald, who is chief executive of Circle 33 Housing Trust.

"It was fantastic. I think the friendliness of people is something very special and it's not by accident that such a large part of our work is in the North-East," she says.

There are hundreds of volunteering opportunities throughout the region, ranging from nursery school and soup kitchens to museums and galleries. CSV has also helped place participants with charities including the National Trust and Cancer Research UK.

The charity's flagship training project is based in the North-East. Springboard Sunderland was set up in 1975 to train unemployed youngsters and continues to go from strength to strength.

"Unemployment was very high at the time. We had an idea that unemployed young people would be needed in future in the caring professions because the shape of the population was changing. We offered the opportunity to train in basic nursing and care skills and we have never looked back.

"You can go into a ward in the hospital in Sunderland or Durham and every member of staff started in Springboard Sunderland. It's fantastic."

There is a pioneering programme at St Nicholas' Hospital in Newcastle, where mental health patients are encouraged to volunteer - an important step on the path to work. The scheme has been so successful, it is being extended to other hospitals around the country.

Nationally, 120,000 people volunteer through CSV every year and no volunteer is ever rejected. The charity has established relationships with 15,000 partners, including local authority social services and education departments, NHS trusts, probation services and other voluntary agencies.

It offers volunteering opportunities "from the cradle to the grave. The Millennium Volunteers scheme involves 100,000 people aged between 16 to 25 in volunteering projects throughout the UK, while the Retired and Senior Volunteer Programme gives opportunities to older people. More than 9,000 volunteers work at GP surgeries across the country, easing the workload for GPs and speeding things up for patients.

"Volunteering gives you an opportunity to do something you wouldn't be able to do in the normal run of things. You get to help people and you get to meet all sorts of interesting people. "

Elisabeth began volunteering at school and continued during her time at university. She trained as a social worker but saw the CSV job advertised and decided to apply. "I thought it sounded interesting for a couple of years but it has been so interesting, I've never actually got round to giving it up."

CSV was founded by Alec Dickson in 1962, following his earlier work setting up VSO, Voluntary Service Overseas.

"It distressed him that people were often rejected by VSO because you have to be careful who you send hundreds of miles away from home. He thought that volunteering was a right in your own country and no-one should be rejected. That's true of CSV today. We will always find something for people to do."

During the early days, Dr Dickson interviewed the male volunteers and matched them with opportunities, while Elisabeth dealt with the females. But as the organisation grew, Elisabeth took over all of the interviewing. In 1972, she became the organisation's deputy director and executive director in 1975.

She has kept volunteering and citizenship at the top of the local, national and international agenda, serving on many public and voluntary sector committees.

Elisabeth was a key figure in getting Citizenship introduced to the National Curriculum in September 2002. As far back as 1969, she launched school and community kits to encourage involvement with the community from a young age.

"It's taken more than 30 years, but we've finally got there," she laughs.

But perhaps her best-known work with CSV is the creation of the pioneering Make a Difference Day, the UK's single biggest day of volunteering action. The massive programme of events involved 75,000 people last year and Elisabeth hopes this year's event will be even bigger.

She says: "It's a wonderful opportunity to see just what sort of opportunities are out there. I would say to everyone who is interested in volunteering to join us for Make a Difference Day. If it isn't for you, there are no hard feelings or obligations, but most people who start volunteering find they want to do more and more."

* Make a Difference Day 2003 will take place on October 25. For more information about volunteering opportunities and Make a Difference Day, visit or call 0800 284 53.