Blog

An informal conversation and guide to the sometimes confusing world of volunteering.

A look back over the last year

It was only when I was putting together some information about our Talking Together project in Birmingham, Coventry and Leicester and saw things ‘in numbers’ that I thought, WOW! We really have achieved so much over the last year.

Talking Together is our volunteering project which offers informal spoken language training to UK residents who have little or no knowledge of English, mostly women from the Bangladeshi, Somali and Pakistani communities. So, what’s been happening  in The Midlands?

·        We recruited and trained 62 volunteers

·        We held 17 volunteer training days

·        364 learners registered for the classes, with 316 completing the course

·        We worked with 19 local community organisations to deliver our courses

Maybe it’s because I really enjoy my job as the Project Coordinator, and it didn’t feel too much like work  that I didn’t realise how much we had accomplished. You go about your job each day, training volunteers, meeting new delivery partners, attending classes, ticking off the to-do list, never stopping to think about the impact the project is having amongst our stakeholders.

We have recruited and trained 62 volunteers – a huge success for our project, as without our volunteers we would not be able to deliver our English classes. We have been impressed by the amount of time and dedication our volunteers have given to us, with many choosing to remain a volunteer and teach extra courses. I am a big believer that this volunteering opportunity is popular because it is so hands on and practical, and really gives our volunteers an experience which increases self-confidence, develops personal and professional skills and provides a sense of achievement.

364 learners registered on Talking Together, with 316 completing the course. Having attended quite a few classes, I have seen first-hand the change in the women who take part. At the first class, learners tend to be quite shy and lacking in confidence. As the classes continue, there is a genuine increase in their participation, enjoyment and improved English Language. I make no secret that one of my favourite classes is the celebration class on the last day. Yes, it is partly that I enjoy the home cooked biryani and samosas the women cook to share, but mainly because I am always so overwhelmed with how far the women have come, and how much they want to talk to me and ask me questions in English.

We have worked with 19 delivery partners, who host and deliver the classes. We work with a variety of partners, including primary schools, community centres and small charities. Their role is crucial to the success of Talking Together, as they link the women to our classes.

And now we are well into the next phase of our project, with a drive for new volunteers and new delivery partners across the Midlands and in London.  Would you like to be a part of Talking Together? We are looking for volunteers in London, Birmingham, Coventry and Leicester so if you are interested take a  look here and  get in touch: for the Midlands project talk to Leanne@timebank.org.uk or phone her on 07835300931 and if you’d like to get involved in our London project, contact calley@timebank.org.uk, tel: 0203 111 7000.  

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Vape shop owners and DJs wanted

The news this week (Prisons Inspector warns of 'staggering' decline in safety at youth jails) made depressing reading for a reason particularly close to home to TimeBank. The Chief Inspector of Prisons reported a “staggering” decline in standards and safety at youth jails in England and Wales. This should be coupled with the fact that the most recent statistics show 69.4% of juvenile offenders released from custody reoffended within a year. Let’s just stop and think about that: nearly 7 out of 10 young offenders leaving prison will have reoffended within a year, with many going back to young offender institutions that the Chief Inspector describes as not safe to hold children and young people.

TimeBank is working with Prospects to pilot a mentoring intervention that can go a small way to address this. Prospects provide the education service for young people in Feltham Young Offenders Institution. In addition to delivering the curriculum, they focus on raising aspiration and providing alternative, positive futures. We have developed a mentoring programme designed to support young men as they prepare to leave the prison, with the aim of reduce reoffending rates and supporting them into work.

Both TimeBank and Prospects believe there should be the opportunity for ex-offenders to have the chance to live a different life on release. To do this we want to nurture and develop the aspirations that many of the offenders have: to be self-employed and entrepreneurial. Having spent time talking to the young people and the professionals that support them, we think we have some insight into the lives the young people want on release.

Like many young men who have grown up in tough inner-city areas their aspirations are, in part, shaped and informed by the places they come from. But that doesn’t mean they lack ambition or should be stereotyped: being their own boss and earning money is the dream – much like any other teenager. So, what do they see as both realistic and attainable? For some it is in the local music industry, promoting events, managing talent or as DJs or producers. For others, it is a career in retail, from the fashion and music they love to vape shops.

But this is not without significant challenges. The inmates are aged between 15 and 21 and the current prison population is about 500. Over 60% of the prison population comes from black and minority ethnic communities and 40% are Muslim. The shadow of gang culture looms large over Feltham. A report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons found that over 48 gangs were represented in the prison population with high levels of “unpredictable and reckless violence”. A quarter of the young men with known gang affiliations are on “keep-apart lists”. At all times out of their cells they are escorted around the prison individually by prison officers to prevent any accidental or arranged meetings. Unsurprisingly in a 2017 inspection nearly half of the young people said they felt unsafe in the prison.

So where do you come in? Once again, we are reaching out for some remarkable volunteers – you might own and run your own vaping business, have offended in the past, or maybe you are now working in the music or event management industry. Whatever it is you do, we want volunteers who can connect with some very challenging young men.

You will need to visit the young people up to three times while they are preparing for release and then continue for three visits once they leave prison. Getting in and out of the prison is problematic – you will only be able to go on weekdays and only during office hours. You will be advised to come in the clothes you stand up in but nothing else and very definitely no mobile phone. TimeBank will train and support you throughout your involvement and once inside the prison gates Prospects will support and accompany you always. And now the tricky part. You’ll need to be young, speak their language and earn their trust. Now that’s an odd thought isn’t it? Earning the trust of a young offender? That would put the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” brigade in a lather. But if you don’t, then nothing is likely to bring about the process of change in these young people’s lives.

And one final thing, these young people can spot a fraud or a charlatan a mile off (l wanted to use another word there, but l hope you get the gist) – if you haven’t done it, don’t pretend you have.

If you would like to find out more about this opportunity please email me at andy@timebank.org.uk

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Slipping through the cracks

This week the charity Refugee Action launched a new report called “Slipping through the cracks: How Britain’s asylum support system fails the most vulnerable”. It highlighted some problems with the UK asylum process, which include:

-        Delays in correctly assessing people’s need for support

-        Overturning decisions on appeal

-        How these delays are having devastating consequences on people’s lives

Through our Time Together project at TimeBank we are meeting asylum seekers every day who face  these very challenges. A number of people we work with have been waiting many months for their initial Home Office interview, which can cause stress and anxiety. This coupled with the persecution and violence they faced in their home country and the often traumatic experience of their journey here can make a bad situation even worse. Often asylum seekers arrive with few social networks and a limited understanding of the UK and its asylum system. This means they have to rely on local services or individuals to support them as they settle into UK life, but these often vary from location to location. Through Time Together, we match refugees and asylum seekers to a local volunteer for a period of six months. Volunteers can have an important role whilst asylum seekers transition and adapt to life in the UK. They can use their local knowledge and signpost individuals to people with expert advice on immigration or housing, or they offer a listening ear when things get tough.

Our Time Together project in the Midlands continues to go from strength to strength. We’ve already recruited 20 volunteers who are supporting 14 refugees and asylum seekers as they settle into life in the UK. On our original Time Together project which ran from 2002–2010, 90% of beneficiaries said they felt at home in the UK and 98% reported an increase in their English language proficiency after mentoring. It’s clear that there is a real need for more services like ours.

You can see a copy of the report here and if you’d like to find out more about our Time Together project, take a look here.

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Volunteering with you changed my life - thank you!

Katie tweeted us out of the blue to say: ‘I trained with u 10 years ago! Now I host #refugees.  The experience changed my life for the better. Thank u!’  So of course, we wanted to know more - and she wrote back to tell us her amazing story:

In 2002 I moved to Harlesden (Brent) and wanted to get more involved in the local community. I was also looking to develop more skills than my marketing job at Sky TV could offer so I found a volunteer position on Do-it.org, working for the Director of Drama Workhouse, a charity giving vulnerable/disadvantaged children and adults access to arts. This led to several things:

Within 12 months I had handed back the laptop, phone, company car and AmEx card  to my boss and became self-employed (much to the distress of my parents who thought I was making a terrible mistake!). Drama Workhouse became my first and longest standing client.

I gained tonnes of experience and had responsibilities I never would have held at a large corporation. Plus I had the flexibility and more time on my hands to do complete courses and extra training so in early 2005 I took part in a 3-4 day training as a volunteer at TimeBank, on its Time Together project supporting asylum seekers and refugees. The training itself, as well as the experiences shared by the other participants opened up a whole different world to me.  I realised there was far more to life than one revolving around London social drinking – as fun as that may be! Within a few weeks after the training I was partnered with a Palestinian woman. Sadly we only met a few times before she was rehoused elsewhere. 

Sometime afterwards I decided to move to Berlin and so didn't get paired with anyone else in London. But the training wasn't in vain because almost exactly 10 years later to the day, I embraced the opportunity to continue what I'd started at TimeBank. In 2015 a million refugees arrived in Germany and I felt compelled to do everything possible so in June 2015 we offered our spare room as emergency accommodation. Almost immediately, Alyssa, a young pregnant Nigerian woman, arrived on our doorstep with just a carrier bag. It was an experience that included learning about the best of Nigerian culture (gizzard, Nollywood and dancing!)

She was then sent to another area of Germany, leaving a huge gap in our household that was soon filled by a Syrian English teacher who has since become like a brother.

When Alyssa from Nigeria stayed with us she wanted to learn to cycle. A few other women I met asked me about lessons too. Finding none, I set up a cycling group in 2015. Since then I have built up a pool of over 100 (female) volunteers who have trained over 100 women to cycle. Participants who learned to cycle now attend as volunteers training other women. I also organised a crowdfunding for my 40th birthday to give out bikes, helmets and locks.

The cycling groups soon led to communal picnics, and then when we were wondering what to do in the winter months we hit on the idea of preparing and cooking food for homeless people. You can see our video here: https://www.youtube.com/embed/eTUs-xpTeAM

Around the time I started the cycling lessons I decided to stop being self employed and was rather unsuccessfully job hunting. It was one of my cycling ladies from Damascus who recommended me for a job at the German Red Cross where I then gained a six month contract working in a refugee camp.  I was then able to springboard to my current position, my dream job setting up refugee projects at Friends of the Earth Germany back in Berlin. So yet again, one way or another, volunteering leads to paid employment!

However in January this year I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I truly believe that I am able to cope with all that has been thrown at me since then because of what I have learned from all my new friends. Their strength and ability to be resilient has inspired me and helped me to remain positive and determined.

Our thoughts are with Katie and all best wishes for a full recovery. And if she has inspired you to get involved in our Time Together project, take a look here.

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Are we ready to change how we care and how we die?

I went to a funeral a couple of weeks ago to support a friend whose father had died – always a sad experience, and more so as it’s the first I’ve attended since I lost my own dad nearly two years ago. There was a whole pew of friends there and afterwards over a drink in the rather quaint hotel frozen in the 1970s that hosted the wake I started reflecting on who would arrange and attend our funerals.

It struck me that only one of us in that pew had children – and our job as we reach middle age is increasingly to care for our parents and to be there to help organise a funeral and support the parent left. But our population is changing. It is ageing rapidly and many people are choosing a different lifestyle:  single, straight, gay, married, childless, divorced, living together – the structure of our society is very different to how it used to be but are we ready to change how we care and how we die? 

A combination of Father’s day and Carers’ Week made me muse further about how we should start thinking not just about how the NHS will cope or whether any of us will be eligible for a State Pension when we retire – but how society will cope with this change as we all age. Isn’t this the ultimate ‘early intervention’ agenda item: who cares for those who have no one to care for them when there is little chance, economically, of the State being there? Because the number of people without family or friends to step up and care is only going to increase.

For example, assuming I power through to old age will it be my equally ageing friends i.e. my life long support network who organise my funeral or a distant relative who rocks up out of the blue in the hope I’ve left to them what the Government hasn’t taken in dementia tax? A person therefore who doesn’t know my views on people wearing black and making sure there’s plenty to drink afterwards?!

So is this a new place for volunteers to step in? Will the face of volunteering adjust to support our changing population? Will we have a new role for the volunteer, not just as a befriender combatting loneliness but slowly stepping in to the role of ‘traditional family support’?  At TimeBank we talk a lot about putting volunteers into places previously the preserve of the professional – not replacing but complementing their roles.

Here though they might be needed to replace the familiar family support, not just in the caring role, but in those very challenging areas that as a child you dread mentioning to a parent however grown up you are: ‘what about power of attorney’, ‘what hymns do you want at your funeral’, ‘cremation or burial’?  It’s never easy to bring up these questions with a loved one - would it be any easier for a volunteer, one step emotionally removed to do so? And is it a role that anyone would want to take on? Is it one we need to start to develop to accommodate our changing society?

We talk in the charity sector about joined up thinking, we talk about the importance of learning from our failures in early intervention for mental health, integration, homelessness and all the other contemporary challenges in our society that we have allowed to become problems rather than intervene first - simply because funding comes in silos and solutions would cross budget responsibility. I think we need to start to consider right now our changing society and what the ‘ageing population’ that we bandy around really means to us on a practical, volunteering, societal and human level, not just in terms of our economy.  

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Understanding why people seek sanctuary

Simone is a volunteer mentor on our Time Together project, which supports refugees and asylum seekers to settle into the UK. To mark Refugee Week, he writes about the importance of understanding why people seek sanctuary. 

Freedom, achievement and self-realization. That is what the people we are told to call “asylum seekers” are looking for, and we ought to think no less of them.

I have spent the greatest part of my life in Italy, but I would not be who I am today if it wasn’t for the many trips I took abroad, free as a citizen of Europe in the 21st century to move around the Union without limits. At the age of 15 I took my first big challenge and went to learn English in cold and rainy Ireland. I got sick and cried but that made me who I am, it gave me courage.

In 2012 I found love in Kragujevac, Serbia, and followed her to Bucharest, Romania, where I took my BA. These three years gave me responsibility and independence. I studied, volunteered and travelled in a country that soon became my second home. I built a solid network of friendships - so solid I know there will always be someone ready to help me in moments of need. Then came the third adventure, the decision to move to the UK to do my Masters in Birmingham. And guess what? I have family here too now.

Long story made short, of course; but my point is, there is nothing more valuable than community. I have learned that broadening my perspective, knowing and accepting difference, makes one happier and fulfilled more than anything else. Let us be true to ourselves, realize how important our family and community are to us, and offer what is in our power to give to those who ask for help, whatever their origins. Labels and classifications we attach to human beings prevent us from seeking to know them; we pretend we always know enough about people, be it the street beggar, the drug addict or the refugee.

Let us not pretend we know everything there is to know about “asylum seekers”; let us ask them to tell their stories when we meet them, let us help them overcome the fear and insecurity which has brought them so far to seek help. Let us try to help them realize their dream life, let us ask for help from others if we feel we are not prepared. But never let us refuse to listen.  We will grow more confident of ourselves, build friendship, and, who knows, maybe we will find help ourselves overcoming some difficulties. Every human being is a resource: let us nurture everyone’s potential and so enrich our own lives.

If you’d like to know more about our Time Together project, take a look here

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Increasing our impact by working with volunteers and community partners

Small Charity Week celebrates and raises awareness of the essential work of the UK’s small charities which make such an invaluable contribution to the lives of millions of individuals, communities and causes across the UK. TimeBank may be a small charity but we are doing a big job, thanks to our volunteers who make such an impact on the communities where we work.

In our Birmingham office we are running three projects: Talking Together, Time Together, and Hidden Carers. Through these projects our volunteers are teaching English to women who otherwise would have no access to basic English classes, mentoring refugees and asylum seekers, and explaining the rights of carers to people doing informal caring roles. Together these projects are helping to tackle extensive social problems, utilising the compassion and skills of local people.  

As well as working with local volunteers, we work with community grassroots organisations to deliver our projects. This not only helps to strengthen our work, but also builds the capacity of the organisations we partner with. Talking Together funds local organisations to provide English lessons for primarily Somali, Bangladeshi and Pakistani women. Once the English course has finished, the community organisation is then left with a scheme of work which they can use to organise their own English classes, which also helps to strengthen their capacity.

Another successful partnership on the Time Together project has recently been with the Birmingham LGBT centre. Working together means we can match LGBT asylum seekers to a purposefully selected volunteer to support them. Working in partnership in this way means that community organisations put their trust into TimeBank, and know that we can deliver projects with big impact, and with outstanding volunteers.

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Working for a small charity means wearing lots of different hats!

My role as Project Co-ordinator involves working on both our employee volunteering programme and our English language project, Talking Together. This means that my job and day to day tasks are varied, from training volunteers to teach English to posting on social media or visiting community gardens to discuss potential team volunteering opportunities.

As part of my role, I work closely with many other small charities and community organisations and I’ve found that my experience is very typical. Wearing many hats is a normal part of working for a small charity. 

When I first thought of writing a blog for Small Charity Week, I considered writing a ‘day in the life’ style piece. I soon realised this wouldn’t work as no day is ever the same so here is a sample of things I’ve done over the past few months to give you a flavour of what it’s like to be a TimeBank Project Co-ordinator:

  • Sourced approximately 50 shades of grey paint to decorate the library of a primary school in Clapham. Volunteers created a woodland themed mural using just grey, white and black, and the result was fantastic. Particularly considering the walls were royal blue at the start of the day!
  • The part of my job I enjoy most is meeting the learners who attend our Talking Together English classes. There is so much fun and laughter that goes alongside the learning.  I recently stepped in to teach one of our classes at the last minute after a volunteer was taken ill. Whilst teaching ways to describe their ailments when visiting the doctor or dentist, I was told that the best way to get white teeth is to wash your mouth out with salt water daily! I haven’t tried that just yet…
  • Starred in a film created by Met Film school students to promote our employee volunteering programme. This involved being filmed ‘typing’ and ‘talking on the phone’ and repeating a handshake with a volunteer a number of times to make sure we got the right shot!
  • Assisted a volunteer with taking her class of beginner level English learners on a tour of the British Museum. This was their last class with their teacher, and it was great to see how engaged they were and how far they had come with their learning. 
  • Spent an afternoon exploring Poundland with a colleague to find decorations and arts and crafts materials to take to care homes. Throughout the year, we arrange for a number of teams of employee volunteers to spend the afternoon doing activities and socialising with care home residents. Last Christmas, this even involved one volunteer who belly dances in her spare time putting on a show for the residents of a Bethnal Green care home.

I have highlighted the more interesting aspects of my job here and alongside all of this are the usual emails, spreadsheets, meetings, data entry and other admin. Although the varied nature of my role can sometimes be challenging, it also means there is rarely a dull day. Most importantly, my job is incredibly rewarding. The sense of truly making a difference that you get from day to day contact with volunteers and beneficiaries is the real highlight of working for a small charity.

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