Sunderland volunteers take action in the fight against climate change and discrimination

Written by on 31st March 2023

University of Sunderland students and volunteers join hands in an attempt to open our eyes towards major issues in our community. Spark Sunderland reporter Andreea-Mihaela Nastase investigates. 

When Catalin Popsor joined volunteers for a litter pick in a Sunderland Park, little did he know his life would change forever.

Catalin is a 28-year-old Community and Youth-work student at University of Sunderland as well as ICOS-International Community Organisation of Sunderland- volunteer.

“Last year I was interested in volunteering and a flatmate mentioned ICOS, that they are doing activities in the park. I was interested and I applied. I think it was litter pick and cleaning the park. I met other student volunteers there and that made it more interesting, more fun. So, I kept going” said Catalin.

What attracted Catalin to join this non-governmental organisation is the sheer interest in changing human lives, doing as much as possible to help refugees and less fortunate ethnic minorities in the North East of England, as well as caring for the environment, trying to make a difference by doing litter picks, food waste awareness workshops, and so much more.

ICOS volunteers litter picking at Sunderland’s Backhouse Park Photo credit: Khong Weng Chee

Through ICOS’s collaboration with the University of Sunderland and their Student Union, an increase in student volunteers can be seen. “I’ve been meeting students all the time since I’ve been with ICOS”, Catalin stated, “there’s been a constant flow of students I would say, around four or five new students per month that are interested. We are trying to grow that number, so it’s an ongoing process”

Catalin is now working in collaboration with ICOS to try to raise more awareness towards the importance of recycling, volunteering and caring for the community.

“We are working on making a database for volunteers, some reward schemes for people who want to work with ICOS” said Catalin, “they would get recognition certificates, some incentives to recognise the volunteer’s work”.

When asked what he gets from volunteer work Catalin replied without hesitation: “I’ve always been interested in giving back to the community and finding opportunities of all sorts. Volunteering gave me social skills, I’ve been able to interact better with people, met new students that are interested in the same things, and I think it’s a valuable lesson I have to share, as it was very valuable for me”.

“I would recommend volunteering to anyone. You’re giving back to the community. It doesn’t require big things, just a bit of time and interest” Catalin continues.

International Community Organisation of Sunderland is a charity. It started in 2009, with a small office and no resources. Now they have 10 members of staff and countless volunteers.

Daniel Krzyszczak Engagement and Operations Manager at ICOS Photo credit: Andreea-Mihaela Nastase

Daniel Krzyszczak is Engagement and Operations Manager at ICOS and involved in numerous projects, helping the ethnic minority community in Sunderland through various projects, workshops and one-to-one advice and guidance sessions.
“We’ve got Women’s Support Groups, environmental projects, employability projects, we’re helping women fleeing domestic violence and we are also working with people who experience modern slavery and discrimination in the workplace,” said Daniel.

ICOS helps the vulnerable through one-to-one sessions, helping them accessing benefits, finding employment, accommodation, advice and so much more. They are always prepared to tackle any issues brought to their attention. “We started to do workshops for the Ukrainians in Sunderland, who don’t exactly know how the system works, how they could safely navigate and work, and be safe in the UK, so that’s where we come in” Daniel explained.

ICOS is Sunderland based, however clients access them from all Tyne and Wear, predominately Newcastle, Gateshead, South and North Shields, even county Durham. They can arrange online meetings with their clients, but preferably, they’d like to speak to the person face to face. “You can find out more information and for both people I think it’s more comfortable as well” Daniel added.

International Community Organisation of Sunderland volunteers after a long day of litter picking at Backhouse Park Photo credit: Khong Weng Chee

ICOS also tries to help people stuck in modern slavery situations. Sometimes students or foreigners come to the UK and do not realise they might have started working illegally, which will create issues if the future. Daniel and his team of volunteers are working tirelessly to eradicate this major issue. “It is a very difficult subject. Modern slavery is happening but it is a little bit hidden, people are scared to talk about it and in many cases it is very difficult to approach them as people do not think that organisations can help them, which we basically are, we are working with the police, the council and others”, Daniel explained.

University of Sunderland’ Student Union also started a partnership with ICOS and the number of student volunteers who are willing to spend their time on a good cause, helping others out or protecting the environment is on the rise. “We have a relationship with the Students Union and it is positive to see students taking this opportunity to actually be in and engage with our projects, especially the litter picks, planting, seeding and clean-up at Backhouse Park. We received quite a lot of support”, Daniel proudly added.

Khong Weng Chee, University of Sunderland student discusses his volunteering journey: “Having a balance between work life and mental wellbeing is very important. Volunteering with ICOS gives me an opportunity to take a step back from the stress of university assignments and refreshes my mind. When I went to backhouse park for the first time, I was amazed by the park’s atmosphere, it feels like you are walking in a magical forest with little creatures living within them”

Khong has been volunteering with ICOS for a while now, helping them promote the organisation through photographs and social media awareness. Khong said volunteering gives him “An opportunity to meet new people make new friends, improve physical and mental health as well as the opportunity to improve on my photography skills”. He explains “I usually photograph their major events (workshops, activities with students). The photos captured will be shared with the participants and published on their social media accounts.”

ICOS volunteers enjoying “Food Waste Awareness” workshop run by Laura Farrell-Pronesti (Waste and Recycling expert) Photo credit: Khong Weng Chee

When an army of volunteers of all ages join hands and start raising awareness towards major issues in our society, trying to combat them, only good can come from it.
Students and elderly volunteers alike will continue their good work for the benefit of the community and Sunderland residents are more than welcomed to join them in the fight against improper recycling, waste disposal, discrimination, modern slavery, domestic violence, refugee protection and so much more.

For more information or if you want to get involved visit and /

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