Not second-best. Definitely not second-rate. Not workers on the cheap. Only amateurs in the true sense of the word, as they do it for love. For Volunteers Week 2018, Sarah Parker, one of our Volunteer Coordinators, explains why she’s a huge fan of volunteers.
You don’t ‘end up’ as a volunteer; you don’t get ‘trapped’ as a volunteer when you’d really rather be doing something else; there’s no such thing as a ‘dead-end’ volunteering post and you most definitely aren’t just doing it for the money! When someone steps up as a volunteer, it’s because they actively want to do it and because they really care. This on its own is amazing: to think that someone might care enough about our service-users that they freely and willingly give their time for nothing.
But volunteers bring so much more than their time. Many volunteers have lived experience that can enable them to empathise fully with the situation of the person they are supporting. They may come from the same communities and have an additional layer of knowledge and understanding. Volunteers also bring their own unique skills and experience which can complement those of paid workers.
Without the same performance pressures, targets and KPIs, they can focus on the individual in front of them. I have had the privilege of working alongside some truly incredible volunteers who bring a freshness and enthusiasm that can really challenge and inspire me. Sometimes, they have asked the killer questions that have made me go back to first principles and re-evaluate the way we do things. It is a joy to see them grow in confidence and expertise as time passes, and to see the buzz they can get when they know they have made a breakthrough.
Volunteering should be a win for our service users, a win for our staff and a win for volunteers themselves.
And, before you tell me that some volunteers are in it to secure experience or references for their own future, I think it is absolutely right that they should gain from their volunteering too. If volunteers do not gain anything from what they are doing, then we are merely exploiting their good will. We have had some amazing volunteers who have gone on to secure posts in a related field or even in Catch22 itself. Although I have now lost them, I am delighted that this is the case, as they are now in a position to use their skills and experience to even greater effect, whilst (I hope) continuing to be great ambassadors for Catch22 and effective advocates for the children and young people with whom we work. They have gained insight and understanding that can only help make society a more tolerant, caring and compassionate place.
Recently, one of our Case Workers offered a return home interview to Charlie*, a 14 year-old who had been reported missing. Charlie was in the process of transitioning from the gender assigned at birth to their self-identified gender and was clearly struggling with this and so we referred Charlie to CAMHS and to the local LGBTQ youth group. In both cases, they attended the first appointment but ‘did not engage’, so professionals in these agencies felt they were unable to work further with Charlie. But we could see that Charlie was in some distress and set up a meeting with a volunteer Peer Mentor.
Since the missing episode, Charlie had not attended school and had almost become an elective mute with everyone outside of the home. On the day of the first appointment with the Peer Mentor, the only responses Charlie made were vague nods, shakes of the head and shrugs. Afterwards the volunteer and I discussed what we could do to make it easier for Charlie to express thoughts, feelings and wishes. We could see that speaking felt really difficult but we also knew that Charlie had gone into school expressly to attend the appointment so this must mean that the support mattered.
We devised a series of statements about Charlie’s feelings, preferences and needs, things like: I’m fine and I don’t need any support, I need support but I don’t know what, I feel useless at times, I feel I have a number of good qualities etc.
During the session, the mentor asked Charlie to sort the statements onto five large cards, from strongly agree through to strongly disagree. Charlie quickly sorted the statements, giving lots of really helpful information and pointers about current feelings and future support needs. Finally, we had the knowledge we needed.
Where every other professional had said that Charlie ‘refused to engage with the service’, our volunteer mentor’s time, patience and innovation had engaged Charlie. The insight we gained from this session laid the foundation for our team to help Charlie and put a support plan in place.
When you add to all this the research evidence that tells us how beneficial volunteering is for our personal well-being- giving opportunities for physical and mental activity, improving our sense of connectedness to others, building our confidence and self-esteem, and expanding our network- the case for volunteers is overwhelming!
So this Volunteers Week, I’d like to say a huge ‘thank you’ on behalf of Catch22 to the wonderful volunteers who choose to join us in building resilience and aspiration in people and communities. At Catch22, we talk about the 3Ps that everyone needs: a real purpose for our lives, a good place to live and good people around us. Volunteers are some of those good people.