Blog

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

The joys of cultural diversity - and the chance to meet Chris Woakes!

We are in the final phase of our Time Together project, which recruits and trains volunteers as mentors to support refugees and asylum seekers across the West Midlands. The project has run since September 2016 and for almost two years of that I have been the project co-ordinator - one of the most rewarding posts I have ever held.  

I have met such a culturally diverse group of people from all over the world.  All have different motivations for being involved in the project.  Our target for the project was to make 45 matches.  We have made 62 matches in total and still counting.  

Our volunteers are some of the most dedicated, compassionate and supportive people I’ve met, we are very lucky to have them. What is really special and rewarding about mentoring on the Time Together project is that our volunteers are in a very privileged position, meeting someone they wouldn’t otherwise have met, from a completely different culture and set of circumstances to their own.   

It offers our volunteers the opportunity to really be there for someone who might be in a very difficult situation.  They are there to give a different perspective, help them get the right information to solve a problem or issue and to listen without judgement.   

At the first meeting with our participants I explain how the project works, stipulating the boundaries that keep both parties safe.  These processes have been developed over time. There are limitations to what our volunteers can do with and for their partner. We offer training and support throughout the process.   

Some of our participants come to that first meeting disclosing some of the most distressing accounts of escaping war, persecution and abusive experiences in their home countries and here in the UK.  It can be difficult to have a reference point for the levels of trauma our participants have faced.  Some are still living with the remnants of those traumas, whilst trying to make a life for themselves in the UK.  In this situation I make referrals to specific counselling services and explain that our volunteers are not counsellors or caseworkers, but they will be there to listen, to help  them focus on their present situation and if appropriate set aims and goals motivating them to achieve those goals within a specific timeframe.  

The goal could be just for them to meet with their volunteer to talk over coffee.  Another could be to improve English skills or to work on self-belief and resilience.  Our participants have an abundance of resilience, though sometimes they might not feel that strong, especially if they are spending long periods of time alone.  Another aim of the project is to empower our participants and help them engage and be visible in their communities, widening their social and supportive networks.   

At our most recent summer tea party we had 22 volunteers and participants socialising together, some meeting a second time after our group visit to Edgbaston Cricket ground (pictured above, where they met Chris Woakes of the England squad now celebrating their 2019 Cricket World Cup) and some meeting for the first time.  We had volunteers and participants past and present in attendance sharing stories and experiences over tea and cake.  The project has people from over 30 different countries involved, making our tea party a wonderfully culturally diverse celebration of the Time Together Project. 

With the current anti-immigration rhetoric in some tabloids, social media and press, you might think that multiculturalism has failed in the UK.  In my role I see the opposite.  In our participants I see people eager to integrate, learn and be a part of British society.  In our volunteers I see British and European nationals wanting to support and help in whatever way they can to welcome and help asylum seekers and refugees assimilate to life in the UK. 

This cultural interaction offers the opportunity for people of all walks of life to come together offering sociable, supportive exchanges of time spent together enhancing the tapestry of diversity that capitalises on human kindness across and within the West Midlands.  

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

Add a comment

Working closely with funders to set up innovative projects

As a small charity, TimeBank is constantly thinking of new volunteering opportunities that will help deliver positive change. Not all our ideas come to fruition and we certainly don’t believe in innovation for innovation’s sake. Good volunteering projects are driven by evidence of need.

Some of our ideas are discounted internally having worked up proposals, while others are kept on hold as we look for an appropriate funder. However, occasionally we work closely with a funder to develop an application from original idea to delivery. Such was the case with the Forces in Mind Trust

Five years ago, we worked with FiMT to secure funding to deliver our original Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine Project – supporting ex-services personnel with a trained mentor to help achieve a positive and productive life after their military service. This amazing project was able to support many ex-services personnel, but it did highlight some challenges. As the project only delivered support across Glasgow and Edinburgh, we were unable to help many potential beneficiaries away from the central belt. And many of our potential beneficiaries chose to isolate themselves and not to access other existing provision outside of their homes.

As the original project came to an end, we approached FiMT to discuss the possibility of developing an online mentoring model: we know our face-to-face mentoring model works, but we really wanted to know if the this could be replicated online and as importantly would the technology allow us to do this.

It would be great to say that at that point FiMT said “…that’s a great idea, here’s the money…”. Quite reasonably they didn’t. But unlike many other funders they worked closely with us over six months – pushing us hard to refine and revise our proposal to have the best possible chance of success. Not only did their internal grants team provide feedback, but they also have access to a research team at Anglia Ruskin University https://www.vfrhub.com/fimt-research-centre/ who were able to offer expert analysis. 

In April of this year we were awarded funding to deliver an 18-month pilot and we are now well underway. But FiMT’s unique approach didn’t end with the award of funding – they remain very much a hands-on funder. Both the CEO and Grants Manager attended the project inception meeting with our independent evaluators, a tangible demonstration of the care and commitment FiMT have to the projects they fund.

We really do believe that our online model will deliver some exciting results, offering the opportunity for beneficiaries to receive support they might not otherwise have accessed, but also the chance for people to volunteer their time in a completely new way. Over the next 12 months we will be posting updates to let you know how we are getting on and where will go next with online mentoring. 

If you’d like to know more, do take a look at www.timebank.org.uk/shoulder-to-shoulder

 

 

Add a comment

The power of food for integration

I love to eat. So much so, that my friends and family often ask, 'how on earth are you not the size of a house?!' When I'm not out trying new restaurants, you can find me cooking in the kitchen, and if I'm not there, I'll be thinking about my next meal (probably while having a snack).

So, you can imagine my delight when I discovered that a key part of TimeBank's Talking Together course is a celebration, involving the sharing of food. It is my favourite part of the course, not only because of the delicious dishes, but because through the sharing of food, the outcomes of our projects are on display.

Talking Together basic English classes bring a diverse group of learners together and provide them with a space to learn English and build their confidence and make friends. Sharing food together and chatting over a meal brings the chance to talk about ingredients, quantities and numbers, timings and daily routines – all topics which are necessary to get by in life in the UK.

While also practicing English, the participants are displaying hospitality, acceptance and a sense of community and they are demonstrating the phenomenal cooking skills that they have. To see our learners who have come to the UK from across the world - Somalia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkey, Eritrea, Morocco, Iraq, France to name a few – sit around a table and share a meal and a skill is something special. You can see in the participants' eyes the nerves of wondering if everyone will like their dish and the pride when they are told it is delicious. The boost of confidence that comes from someone accepting and enjoying a part of your culture is invaluable.

Louise Casey says that integration is a two-way street; for it to happen you must be willing to accept others and to give some of yourself in return. Our volunteers as well as I, always enjoy taking part in the celebration feast as it gives us a chance to try something new but also share a part of us that the learners may have not tried before. Exchanging a samosa for a flapjack or a chapati for a piece of Battenberg cake might not seem like a significant act, but it opens doors to a world of exploration, starting with the taste buds and leading to a place of infinite possibilities for both learners and volunteers alike.

Up and down the UK, there are opportunities for us to explore different cultures through food. Where I live in Coventry, there are at least 10 Turkish restaurants as well as Persian, Lebanese and of course the many Indian and Chinese options. There is also a social enterprise called Arabian Bites which is run by new Syrian arrivals to the city who are using food to integrate into the city and share their culture and skills.  All around us are opportunities to integrate and explore through food, so next time you are thinking of going out for food, expand your horizons and see what new cultures await you. This time last year I would never have guessed that biryani would become a breakfast staple for me, yet I often find myself with a plateful at 10am... and now I wouldn’t want it any other way!

 

 

Add a comment

Our CEO Phil Pyatt reflects on his first five months at TimeBank

Nearly five months into my time at TimeBank, I thought it was a good time to update you on how everything has been going.  The longer I spend at TimeBank the more I can see the brilliant work that we do, and that there are so many great projects helping beneficiaries across the country, expertly supported by our dedicated volunteers.

Since my last blog I’ve had the pleasure in visiting Ali who leads our Shoulder to Shoulder Online project in Scotland.  Thanks to the generosity of the Forces in Mind Trust (FiMT), over the next 18 months we are able to build on our previous work with ex-service men and women who have been affected by mental health issues or having difficulty adjusting to civilian life by piloting a new online video mentoring platform to link 30 beneficiaries with online volunteer mentors.  This is an exciting project as we look to test innovative technology in the delivery of our work, and I’m looking forward to updating you on our progress. 

Our Talking Together project funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) offers informal, everyday language training to marginalised residents - primarily women - who have little or no knowledge of English. Our practical input helps transform lives, open doors and contribute to community integration.  I had the pleasure of being allowed to sit in on one of the sessions in East London and could see first hand the impact in just that one session on the confidence of the women taking part and how much fun they were having.  The Talking Together team has also grown, and it’s great to welcome Anita, Aleksandra, Lucy and Ayan to TimeBank. 

These are just a few of our projects, and as we move the charity into its 20th year in 2020 we are looking to segment our volunteering projects under five delivery categories:

  • Social Isolation
  • Community Integration & Cohesion
  • Health & Wellbeing
  • Education & Employment
  • Environmental & Regeneration. 

We’re always looking for new partners so if you are interested in chatting to us, please do get in touch. 

Over the new few months as well as the delivery of our current projects, we are working hard on securing new and existing funding so we can continue our work beyond this year, looking at new projects where the need is greatest, and building a new website which will launch in the autumn so we’re better able to highlight and recruit for our work. 

None of this is possible without our volunteers, and one of the highlights of this job is getting to meet so many of them at our regular get togethers and understand what makes them commit so much of their time to help the beneficiaries they support. Really inspiring stuff! 

So, five months in, there’s still plenty to do, and I’m looking forward to updating you more in the next couple of months!

 

 

Add a comment

What mentoring has taught me about making a difference

Becoming a mentor for a refugee in London involves the desire to make a positive difference to their life.

According to the Collins dictionary, “a person's mentor is someone who gives them help and advice over a period of time”. “Help” can mean sharing what life knowledge one has acquired, especially in a specific cultural context. Speaking English, working in the UK, looking for a job in London, socialising with English people - these are some of the skills that our volunteers can share with their mentees.  

“Advice” however, is a tricky one. Again according to the dictionary, “if you give someone advice, you tell them what you think they should do in a particular situation”.  

Is this what mentoring is about?  For me, the short answer is no. 

TimeBank has partnered with Renaisi to deliver the RISE (Refugees into Sustainable Employment) project to support refugees in North and East London into sustainable, rewarding employment. Our role is to recruit and train volunteers as mentors to support refugees over a period of six months. 

This timeframe is important because it reminds us that making a difference to someone’s life involves keeping in mind that the aim, ultimately, is for them to walk their own path, to gain the skills to move forward on their own. Decision making skills are often top of the list.  

Mentoring is not “doing for” the other person, even when that seems like the easiest or fastest option. It challenges our desire for immediate problem-solving - It is “being” much more often than it is “doing”. It is presence rather than action, being with rather than doing for, sitting with, holding space and moving through. 

In my experience, this is the great beauty and challenge of mentoring, in all its modesty and subtlety. It is what it has taught me about making a difference. 

 

 

Add a comment

My first month

Time certainly does fly when you’re having fun, and I can’t believe it has already been a month since I started as CEO at TimeBank! 

With the charity moving into its 20th year in 2020, there are certainly big shoes to fill but after just a month I’m feeling really settled thanks to the professionalism and dedication of the committed staff here at our offices in London, Birmingham and Scotland.

I’ve been impressed by the great work they are doing to support ex-service men and women in Scotland and to help refugees and asylum seekers in Birmingham and London through the challenges of a new life in a new country. It’s been great to see the enthusiasm that our corporate volunteers bring to the community projects we organise for them – and how much they achieve (and benefit) in just one day.

All in all it’s an exciting time to be associated with the charity.  Over the next couple of months - thanks to securing further funding from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) for our new Talking Together project in London, the West Midlands and Leicester - the team will be growing, and we will be recruiting and training even more volunteers to deliver community English classes that empower those taking part to improve their English and play a greater role in their communities.

So, what does the future hold for TimeBank?  Well I’m optimistic that the future is very bright.  With fresh eyes I can look ahead to the objectives that as a charity with our dedicated board of trustees and staff we want to achieve, and together develop new volunteer projects to support even more beneficiaries across a range of social issues. 

However, we cannot do this without the continued support of the various trusts, foundations, corporates and supporters that have such an impact on both the the young and old across the UK, and we are hugely appreciative of that support. 

New partnerships and relationships will need to be built so that we can reach even more people, and technology will start to play an even greater role in the future of mentoring. We  are planning some exciting pilots in partnership with the voluntary and corporate sectors and increasing our employee volunteering offer.

None of this is achievable without our dedicated pool of volunteers. Through their hard work and dedication they really do transform the lives of the beneficiaries they work with, and I’ve been hugely impressed by their commitment.

So, one month down, there’s plenty to do, but I’m excited by the challenge ahead!

 

Add a comment

Recognising the value that asylum seekers and refugees contribute to society

Since August 2016 Time Together has brought almost 100 volunteers and refugees and asylum seekers together.  As the project co-ordinator I recruit volunteers who are from different areas of the UK and the world. 

They have a variety of reasons for wanting to mentor a refugee or an asylum seeker.  It can be for experience alongside gaining a degree, or about meeting someone from a completely different culture to their own.  Some volunteers are retired and have time to offer.  We also have new residents to the West Midlands who see this as a way to meet new people.  Mostly it’s about wanting to welcome those who have been through the most harrowing of life circumstances and showing their fellow humans kindness and compassion. 

While some of the media would have you believe that most people residing in the UK are hostile to refugees and asylum seekers, many of our volunteers take the opposite stance and see the value in what refugees and asylum seekers contribute to society.  The experience of meeting with their matched participants can offer insight into an incredibly complex immigration process.  Our volunteers can help guide their partners through difficulties and challenges that life throws at them as a refugee and asylum seeker living in the UK.

Our participants are from all over the world including Zimbabwe, Cuba, Iran, Malawi and Malaysia. Our referral partners identify our participants as being socially isolated and in need of one to one support.  Once assessed, informed and interviewed by the project co-ordinator, they are matched to a trained volunteer mentor.  Their volunteer will help them focus on their current situation and refer them to any service or support they could access to help improve their wellbeing. 

They are there to offer practical solutions to problems:  for some it’s about increasing their English language skills or gaining employment.  For others it could be getting specialist therapeutic support to help cope with past traumas.  For our asylum seeker participants, it can be about utilising their knowledge and skills by finding educational/training/volunteering opportunities in their communities while they are unable to work.  Having someone to talk to and to be listened to without judgement over a cup of tea on a regular basis is sometimes all our participants need. 

Twice a year Time Together organises a tea party for volunteers and participants past and present, allowing all parties the opportunity to keep in touch and to touch base with the project co-ordinator.  At our most recent festive tea party participants and volunteers all got into the Christmas spirit and enjoyed a TimeBank Christmas quiz. It also got very competitive on the pool table!  It was a lively afternoon with music, games, laughter and people meeting for the first time over tea and cake.  Based on the success of the tea parties we are looking to organise more social opportunities in 2019.  It’s a joy to see people socialising, laughing and sharing experiences with people they would never normally meet. 

Add a comment

It's a bittersweet celebration when our Talking Together courses come to an end

I spent the last few weeks of last year doing little else during working hours but eating. Or that’s how it feels anyway! Many of our Talking Together English courses came to an end in December, and as the Project Co-ordinator it’s part of my role to visit the final class of each course and hand out certificates to the learners.

We like to make these final classes a celebration of all the group has achieved and so many learners will bring in copious amounts of home cooked food as part of this celebration. As our learners come from a wide range of countries (including Bangladesh, Somalia, Lebanon, Turkey, Afghanistan, China and Pakistan), the range of food on offer has been incredible. Not only has the volume of food been astonishing, but also the quality is impressive. From homemade pakoras, biriyani, spring rolls and samosas to cupcakes that look like they could have been shop bought!

The final class is also a chance for the learners to say thank you to the volunteer who has taught and supported them over the past 12 classes. In some cases, the class have even grouped together to buy a gift for their teacher: flowers, chocolates, and even perfume. At a few classes I also received a gift including a plant which now sits beautifully on the windowsill next to my desk!

Their gratitude is also evident in the feedback that we get at this last class. Here’s a sample of what a few of our learners had to say about the course:

“I made new friends and I improved my English speaking.”

“I like English class. I think the 2 hours is too short because I enjoy the English. Because when I’m here, I’m not alone.”

“My confidence has grown since I came here.”

“I enjoyed learning. There is nothing I didn’t enjoy. I hope it’s more often.”

Despite the tremendous achievements of our learners and all the happiness that the celebration class brings, the last class of each course can also be a bittersweet occasion. At each class I am begged by the group to allow the class to continue and their limited English means it can be difficult to explain the limitations of our programme and why continuing the course indefinitely isn’t possible.

Whilst we always aim to refer learners to other courses, either formal classes at colleges or local informal conversation classes, the learners are often concerned about making this change. This can be due to childcare issues (all our classes take place during school hours and some provide creches for younger children), fears of attending classes in a formal environment - particularly for those who have never had formal education before - or concerns about travelling to unfamiliar areas.

This is why we have been trying to work with other ESOL providers to help break down these barriers and encourage learners to access other courses once they complete our programme. A particular success has been in Harrow where we invited the Head of ESOL at Harrow College to visit one of our classes at a primary school in the area. Due to the high number of learners who are keen to continue, the college can set up a higher-level course to start in February which will be delivered at the school! This will be an accredited course, held in a comfortable and familiar environment for the learners where they will be able to all continue learning together. A win win for all!

Add a comment