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I'm Heather McGarrigle and this is my blog - a colourful celebration of culture, crafting and creativity in Northern Ireland and beyond.

Mela Monday: Hands up!

Over 20,000 of you are expected through the gates of Botanic Gardens for Belfast Mela 2012. Ensuring this many people are ushered in, enjoy safe, clean surroundings and are well fed and entertained all day, requires a small army of people. A small army of volunteers, to be exact and it's those volunteers under the spotlight in this week's Mela Monday.

Last year, over 60 volunteers gave their time to make sure Mela ran smoothly and, as someone who was there as a punter, I can confirm they did a sterling job.

Just a snapshot of the crowds that packed out Botanic Gardens for Belfast Mela 2011.

Most of the smiling faces in Mela T-shirts you see handing out tickets, giving directions, serving food or even milling around near stages with headphones on are part of this army and this year, I'll be joining them. I wanted to use this post to explore the different ways you can work voluntarily for ArtsEkta, the different people who do so and why, year after year, so many people come back to work here for free. What are they getting from it? Volunteer Coordinator Mairead Quinn is something of a poster girl for volunteering at the organisation. Having stumbled upon the first Belfast Mela in 2007, she knew straight away she wanted to be involved in the next one and signed up to help out.  She came back the next year, and the one after, and in her own words, "pestered ArtsEkta" until they offered her an internship in their office. The rest is history and Mairead absolutely adores her job. The lovely Ms Quinn has put me in touch with a small but varied selection of people who work voluntarily for ArtsEkta. Here are their stories:

THE JACK OF ALL TRADES

Conor McNally, 36, is an IT professional, working in Belfast. His story begins in a similar way, evidently, to many who become part of ArtsEkta - he stumbled upon the first Mela and decided he had to be a part of the next one. Conor says: "As a volunteer, you're a part of everything that's going on, rather than being a visitor and just taking in one thing at a time - you're experiencing it all. "You also get to see the whole thing come together - all the stuff being left down before set-up, the stage being constructed from nothing, the tents and stalls going up. "Every year, I just tell them to put me where they need me, I'm up for a challenge! You can find yourself doing anything, from stage management, volunteer supervision, to catering assistance and being a runner. "It is just great fun - I have a day job which is totally different from the stuff I do at ArtsEkta and I volunteer for the sheer enjoyment of it.  "We are so lucky that arts festivals like this are now able to happen in Belfast, they add so much to the city's cultural life, and without volunteers, they couldn't take place. So by volunteering, you really are making a difference."

 
 

THE INTERN

Communications and PR student Rebecca Young, 24, has been working as an events and marketing assistant in the ArtsEkta office since June. Her internship lasts until September.

"I've been assisting Krishan, the events and marketing manager, with putting Mela together. I've been booking flights and accommodation for artists, working on our social media channels and I helped to put one of our press releases together recently. "The work has been totally invaluable; you can read as many books about working in events and communication, but it means nothing without practical work experience like this. "I've been to Mela twice and loved it, but never realised before my internship how much work went on in the community, with the outreach arts programmes and summer schemes.  "A lot of the work experience for this industry is based in London and there's no way I could afford to do an internship like this there and support myself on part time earnings. Also, Northern Ireland is very small, so the competition for these placements is high - so I've been very lucky."

THE ARTIST

Sarah Gordon is a 22-year-old art graduate from Belfast who is continuing her studies in fashion. She began volunteering for ArtsEkta earlier this year having read about the Festival of Colours (Holi) online.
 
"It was a few days before the event and I never thought I'd get in at such short notice, but Mairead was great. I had such a good time; it was so friendly, calm and well organised.
 
"Since then, I've become involved in the organisation's new heritage project, Sanskriti and at Mela, I will be working alongside the artists at Cultureland. Mairead is also arranging for me to shadow one of the Cultureland artists when they begin their next community outreach programme.
 
"Because the organisation is so arts based, I feel really at home there, but they have been brilliant; really giving me free rein to get as immersed in the arts side of things as I want.
 
"It is truly a beautiful, inspiring organisation and I just love being a part of it."
 
I'll give the final word to Mairead, who explains the importance of volunteers to the organisation as a whole.
 

"Over the last number of years, we at ArtsEkta have worked with hundreds of volunteers to ensure the smooth running of our three key annual festivals. This partnership has been mutually beneficial, providing ArtsEkta with the capacity to deliver large scale, high quality events that impact positively upon the diverse community of Northern Ireland. Volunteering with us has also provided many people with work experience, the opportunity to develop and enhance skill sets, make new friends, try something different, do something positive for the community of Northern Ireland and above all else, have fun."

 
If you've been inspired to put your hand up to volunteer, there's still time to get involved in this year's Mela. Email Mairead to find out more.
 
Make sure to get in touch - are you volunteering this year? Have you read this and decided to go for it? Are you a seasoned ArtsEkta volunteer? Share your experiences in the comments section, I'd love to hear from you.
 
Also don't forget about my anonymous feedback survey. I've already received many insightful responses, but there's always room for more - have your say.

UPDATE 07/08/12

There are whispers on the breeze that if you happen to be around Cornmarket in Belfast at around 11am this Thursday, you could be in for a treat. 
 
That's all I'm allowed to say...

Mela Monday: A flash of inspiration

Magazine of the Month: Mollie Makes

Magazine of the Month: Mollie Makes