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

Volunteering put me on the path to becoming a teacher - and enhanced my employability

One of our fantastic volunteers, Amy, describes how she's gained as well as given on our Talking Together English language training project.


I have worked as an English language mentor on two projects working with ladies from a range of ethnic minority backgrounds. My role required me to work with fellow mentors in order to share ideas and create a final lesson plan which would assist the mentees to reach their personal goals. This could be to improve their speech, reading and/or writing.

Each mentor was assigned a small group of mentees. The duration of each programme was six weeks, which included a two hour session per week at a local community centre. One of these weeks is allocated for an educational trip and lunch. In my first project, my colleague organised the trip. In my second project, I took the lead and organised the trip, ensuring it was within the budget and timescale TimeBank had set us. This gave me the opportunity to take ownership of the trip and act as an ambassador for TimeBank.

The Pen Museum and Jimmy Spices were the places we decided upon and we had a thoroughly enjoyable experience. When I approached The Pen Museum to try and arrange a time for us to visit, I explained the background of TimeBank and what Talking Together Mentoring aims to deliver. They were excited for us to attend as they were very keen to reach out to new groups of people.

In preparation for the trip, I created questionnaires to help gauge the mentees’ understanding of the objectives for the day. This could be: asking for prices of bus fares, asking questions at the Museum or Jimmy Spices.

The final week of the course was a celebration week where we indulged in food and drink and were awarded certificates of completion. 

From my perspective, voluntary work is a choice to help those who are vulnerable. It is not a paid job where you are bound by a contract to work certain days and times. It requires selflessness and a degree of compassion. I am very passionate in my role as an English language mentor and recognise I have a responsibility towards the mentees to provide them with the assistance they require.

It was very heart-warming to see that spending just a couple of hours a week with these ladies helped them grow in confidence and develop their skills. The main barrier I identified is their self-belief and lack of contact with English speakers. I reassured them that they should not be scared of making mistakes because that's how you learn. If you have self-belief and are determined, you are able to reach your goals with a little guidance and practice.

In my approach to volunteering, I was very self-disciplined, organised, determined and committed. I ensured I set time aside each week to gather materials for my lesson plan. In my first project I consistently spent an average of five hours each week planning for the sessions. I worked hard to create my own resources by including a lot of visuals as many felt overwhelmed by textual resources.

I built up the tasks from the base idea to develop into more abstract ideas. My creativity was enhanced each week by doing this and the mentees were able to get more out of the sessions. A supervisor observed one of the sessions and I was pleased that she recognised my hard work. She commented: “The quality of the resources you have created and the professionalism you have shown is second to none….” 

I have developed on both on a personal and professional level as a result of my volunteering. My motivation was both altruistic and intrinsic. Initially I did not believe I was capable of constructing a lesson plan with different tasks and successfully meeting the objectives of each session every week. I did not have a firm plan to go into the teaching profession before this experience. Because my hard work and professionalism were recognised, I was offered a second project to work as an English language mentor in a different area of Birmingham. 

I feel a high level of job satisfaction in my role and have thoroughly enjoyed my time working with the mentoring groups and my fellow colleagues. The project has helped reach out to ladies who may feel intimidated to attend a conventional college to gain the English skills they so urgently require to help them in their daily lives. Many of them are from disadvantaged backgrounds and have young children and cannot afford to pay fees for English courses. Talking Together helps to give these ladies hope so they do not feel overlooked and feel able to progress with their English in a setting where they feel comfortable to learn.

After my experience as an English language mentor, I have decided upon a career teaching English to adults. After I graduate, I intend to progress to a post graduate certificate in education in Post-Compulsory Education and Training, specialising in English, Literacy and ESOL at Birmingham City University. It is simply amazing to see that my voluntary placement has turned into a passion of mine and helped me transform as a professional and as a person and this will inevitably enhance my employability. 

We've now expanded our Talking Together project to London so if you'd like to get involved, take a look here.

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Learning English to make a better future for my children

From the moment she got into the taxi to the time she joined HRH Princess Anne, the smile did not leave Shaila’s face.  This was, in her own words, an honour and something she had never imagined would happen to her.

Shaila is learning English on TimeBank’s Talking Together project and we’d been invited, along with our CEO Helen Walker (pictured on the right above), to an event at Westminster put on by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) which would also be attended by Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, Patron of NIACE.

Shaila arrived in the UK one year ago to live with her husband who had arrived 18 months before; they have two children and live in Small Heath, Birmingham.

Arriving at New Street station I let Shaila lead the way to increase her confidence as this was the first time she was travelling without her husband.  She recognised symbols/signs and navigated us to the correct platform.  On the train Shaila told me that although she arrived in the UK a year ago, she only recently started to venture out alone to local shops and the local community centre which is where she found out about the Talking Together programme.  “Even today it was my husband who encouraged me to come by myself," she said. 

Initially Shaila had agreed to attend the event only if her husband could accompany her on the journey to London.  I asked Shaila what had made her change her mind to travel without him. She said that due to childcare her husband could not come but that this was possibly a good thing as this meant she had to do this alone; become independent.

The excitement was starting to show as Shaila talked about how her family in India would never believe that not only was she talking in English, but she was on the way to meet a real Princess!  Shaila mentioned that although she picked up some English words in India she would never say them out loud in case others laughed at her.  But here she was just a year later conversing with me in English, answering my questions and loving the progress she had made.  She mentioned how, before embarking on the Talking Together programme, she lived for her family and the community but now she was ready to live for herself and be an example to her children.

Arriving at London Euston Shaila needed to visit the rest room. I encouraged her to locate and visit the toilets by herself whilst I waited for her outside.  After slight hesitation she followed signs and located the restroom.  However, she had a little trouble putting her coins in and getting past the turnstile.  I watched Shaila for a moment to see whether she would be able to manage without assistance.  An attendant arrived and Shaila managed to explain that her coin had got stuck, he opened the gates for her and she continued.  When she came out Shaila told me how she would’ve normally waited for her husband to speak for her. 


We made our way on the tube to Westminster, stopping to take photos in front of Big Ben and the famous red telephone box!  Shaila wanted to show her husband and children where she had been today. 

Posing happily she mentioned how she may just forward them to her family in India to show them that she isn’t sitting at home, she is out learning and seeking new opportunities.

We made our way to Central Hall Westminster where the event lasted until 3pm with a showcase of different projects in the morning and a feedback session in the afternoon. 


 Shaila was proud to see a reservation for her at the table and waited eagerly for her chance to meet HRH Princess Anne. I asked Shaila if she understood what was being said. She told me she didn’t follow everything but could make out some words. 

Shaila was asked to join a group of volunteers from other projects to meet HRH Princess Anne in an adjoining room. When she came back she shook Helen’s hand and thanked TimeBank for giving her this opportunity.  She told us how HRH spoke to the group and then to them individually.  She was asked why she was taking part in the Talking Together programme and what she wanted to gain from it.  Shaila told HRH that she wanted to improve her confidence and then continue to learn so that she can make a better future for her children. She told us how HRH had really liked her answer and agreed with her, telling her not to be afraid and to take any opportunity that came her way and that learning was a lifelong journey.

We had planned for me to accompany Shaila on the bus back to her home address but when we reached Birmingham City Centre Shaila shook my hand and said “It’s OK, I can do this, I will catch the number 60 bus back home, I will be fine.”  

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I turned to language mentoring to give something back to the community

My name is Caroline and, following a spell of ill-health, I have turned to language mentoring to give something back to the community. 

I am one of two mentors facilitating TimeBank's Talking Together mentoring group that has been running now for a month at the Shama Centre, Leicester.  


My co-mentor Tahereh (pictured on the left of the group) is a trained teacher, originally from Iran, who has lived in Britain for nearly 20 years. So Tahereh herself has first-hand experience of learning English as a second language. 

We are smaller than the average group with four mentees. Our learners come originally from India, Nigeria and Turkey. Their confidence and use of English – and the length of time that they have been in Britain – varies from a very limited understanding of all but a few English words or phrases, to being able to speak conversational English and to communicate confidently with professionals. By talking together everyone benefits.

So what has bought people to the group? Some are interested in taking the next steps in their English Language training and signing up for a formal English Language training course, such as English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). Others goals are to learn how to gain training for employment for example, by learning to sew. Still others want to be able to support their grandchildren by using a computer or by improving their English reading skills.

The mentoring course is very practical. So far we have used selected sessions from ‘English My Way’ materials to cover some basic English language skills such as learning how to say ‘I like/ I don’t like’ and ‘I want’. We have also practised the vocabulary, listening and understanding skills needed to make enquiries and to book appointments. This week we used a computer to complete a session designed by another mentor, and shared with us via our project co-ordinator Jane, exploring the concept and practicalities of volunteering and introducing our mentees to the volunteering website.

Through the use of leaflets and sharing information found on the internet we have also had a chance to extend our knowledge of local amenities, such as the swimming pools at Oadby and Beaumont Leys and Abbey Park. Next week we are planning a trip to the New Walk Museum; a first for our group. The course attendees all have caring responsibilities and spend much their week at home cooking and looking after children or grandchildren so we hope that this local information and experience will give them some new ideas about places to go in and around Leicester with their families.

We've now extended our Talking Together project to London so if you are interested in volunteering with us take a look here.

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Helping to train a guide dog has made me aware of the challenges faced by blind and partially sighted people

At TimeBank we all have five days’ leave each year to volunteer and we use it in a variety of ways – from acting as a charity trustee to lying in a body bag on Brighton beach! I’m helping to train Digger, a trainee guide dog who is spending time in our office to get used to a work environment. This is my second trainee guide dog, the first was Mason who has gone on to be a Buddy dog for a 10 year old girl who is deaf and blind.

I first heard about Guide Dogs, and a new trial they had started, via Twitter. They were looking for volunteers in the City who could have a guide dog during the day, in an office … I thought there might be some hurdles to cross before this could happen at the TimeBank office, but I also knew that I really wanted to volunteer with dogs. Ever since I was a child I always wanted a pet dog but I had asthma and with working parents, having a dog at home wasn’t very practical. And as an adult I wasn’t able to find any volunteering roles that didn’t require significant, previous experience of handling dogs. So when I saw the tweet from Guide Dogs I knew this was my chance!

I shouldn’t have worried about having a guide dog at the office. Both my CEO, Helen, and the rest of the TimeBank team were very supportive from day one. And of course the training and support from Guide Dogs has been absolutely fantastic. Like last year, having a guide dog in the office is not only a fun and rewarding volunteer experience but also a poignant reminder of how lucky we are to have our mobility.  Digger is a special dog, just like all guide dogs; he is going on to be a wonderful support and companion for someone who runs an events company and his new owner will depend on him to get around London to do business. His work experience at the TimeBank office has prepared Digger for his working life! 


I will always remember my first weeks of volunteering. I was introduced to someone who works for Guide Dogs and also happens to be blind. During our chat he asked me if I knew anyone who is blind or partially sighted and I had a long think but I couldn’t recall anyone. These moments bring issues to the front of your thoughts - about lack of accessibility, equal opportunities and diversity - that still need to be tackled. Through volunteering, in a small way, I hope that I can show my support.

A big thanks to Andy Gatenby at the Guide Dogs team – Digger and Mason too. 

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I'm helping to bring the diverse communities of Birmingham together

Our Talking Together project recruits and trains volunteers to offer informal, spoken language training to long-term residents with little or no English, most of whom are women from the Bangladeshi, Somali and Pakistani communities. Here, one of our volunteers, Niamh, tells why she got involved ...


Almost five months ago, after completing a CELTA course and becoming newly qualified as a teacher of English as a second language, I signed up with TimeBank to gain a little more teaching experience and I’ve loved every second of it.

It’s such a wonderful experience meeting a diverse range of women with an eagerness to learn, form new friendships and grow in confidence. I grew up in Birmingham and have the privilege of living in this cultural melting pot of a city. With the Talking Together project I have helped contribute to bringing the many communities of Birmingham together through the shared language of English and hopefully (and more importantly) made a few women’s everyday lives a little less stressful.

Exploring the city with its many sites and attractions as a group is a great way to practice the vital, everyday English we teach and develop the confidence of the men and women who have dedicated themselves to learning with us.

I recently joined Nazia and her Talking Together group at the Golden Hillock on a day trip to the BBC Studios at the Mailbox in Birmingham’s city centre. 

Firstly, we needed to travel by train from Small Heath to Moor Street station. Many of the women in our group had never taken the train and had no idea they could be in the city centre in just a few minutes. The ladies took turns enquiring about times and ticket prices before we hopped on the train feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, a great start to the trip.

At the BBC Studios we were given a grand tour around the building with two friendly guides who gave the group every opportunity to ask questions and practice their English. We were shown the local news studio and were amazed by how it’s made to look so much bigger with the magic of television and extremely expensive cameras. The ladies also got the opportunity to become weathergirls, testing their reading skills on an autocue before heading down to the radio studio to see the local DJs. A lot of the BBC Studios is open to the public and many of the ladies were eager to come back with their families for a day out.


We strolled to the pavilions for lunch, passing New Street Station where we discussed what other cities they can visit such as London, Liverpool and Manchester where some of the women have family. Once we arrived at the pavilions the ladies ordered their own food and sampled the local cuisine (you can’t beat a plate of pizza and chips).

As I chatted with these lovely ladies about the trip, their families and their interests I could see how something so outwardly everyday as a trip to the city centre could be so important and offer these women such an invaluable opportunity to show off all their hard work as well as enjoy themselves, together.

If you'd like to get involved in Talking Together, take a look here.

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Help to face the days ahead

Spring is in the air and with that comes the better weather. Well, living in Scotland, we are always hopeful this will be the year of lots of sun. It’s also a really good time of year for matching up mentees with mentors as more daylight hours provides opportunities to take part in wide range activities out of doors.

Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine matches Service veterans and family members living in Glasgow and Edinburgh with volunteer mentors who provide face to face support, a couple of times each month, over the course of 3 to 9 months, by setting goals. This helps mentees focus their day, which is a supportive tool as it can be difficult for veterans who have mental health issues to think about the days ahead when faced with anxiety, panic attacks, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mentors are good at breaking down the goals in to small steps, so that mentees feel they are achieving all of the time.  Mentors and mentees are matched  in relation to their interests and hobbies and what they would like to get out of the match. They also meet at various times in the day, whenever suits both, so it's very flexible.

Mentees are supported with a wide range of goals, including: having someone to talk with if they are feeling low, enhancing confidence and self-esteem, help in focusing their day whether they have a lots going on, or would like to enhance their social circle, or taking up  a new interest or hobby. Having someone there, just for them, helps their confidence to grow, especially when they have someone to do activities with.

Stephen, a veteran living in Glasgow has recently been matched with Rita, a TimeBank volunteer mentor. I received a really nice note from Stephen the other day. He said “I have had two great meetups with my mentor Rita, so far and two enjoyable days. We enjoyed walks, going to museums and discussed a wide range of topics including baking, photography and gardening. My mentor is a very knowledgeable person and a very good listener. I just wanted you to know that I am getting a lot from this mentoring programme and look forward to the next meet up.” That made my day.

I’ll be in George Square, Glasgow for Armed Forces Day next month on 27th June, 2015. Do come along to the TimeBank stall for a chat and pick up a flyer to find out more about the project, or how you as a veteran or family member could be supported by a mentor; I’m also recruiting  for volunteer mentors.

You can also call me on 07437 437 867, email or find out more here.

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Bostin* Black Country travels

Following on from the amazing success of TimeBank’s Talking Together project we were able to secure additional funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government to expand the English teaching programme across the Midlands, with a particular focus on the Black Country.

This is the area to the north and west of Birmingham which at one time was one of the most industrialised parts of the country. These days it contains some of the most deprived wards in England.

We wanted to explore how we might work with smaller, grassroots organisations – those that are often invisible in the usual profiles of the third sector. We’d already  undertaken a lot of research work across the Midlands, looking ward by ward at English proficiency, ethnicity and other indices of deprivation. We knew where we wanted to work, but now needed to identify appropriate delivery partners.

We soon discovered that even in an age where internet and social media has a deep reach, there are some places it doesn’t get to. Some of the delivery partners we are working with don’t have websites or email addresses. Two do not have any paid staff members at all. So we worked with Dudley Council for Voluntary Service - thanks in particular to Becky Pickin, whose role is to support small, informally constituted groups - to identify potential partners.

After that it was a case of traditional community development work for the TimeBank team – buses, train, visiting housing estates miles from anywhere, going to see people in their homes, scout huts or community centres. Many cups of tea later, we had identified our delivery partners.

However, that was only half of the challenge. We wanted to invest in these small community organisations to build their capacity to grow in future. But we were also acutely aware that in managing public funds there had to be transparency in our arrangements and clear lines of accountability. So where necessary we worked with them to ensure they had simple and straightforward governing documents, bank accounts in the name of the organisation, not an individual, and a clear strategy if their group ceased to function.

So now we have some amazing delivery partners identifying and providing learners for our functional English classes including the Women’s Awareness Association, a Yemeni women’s group meeting in a scout hut in Halesowen; DIYAA, a south Asian women’s group tackling social isolation in Lye and a project supporting Bangladeshi women in Tipton. Over the next few weeks we hope to bring on board partners in Nottingham and Coventry including a Women’s Centre and a project supporting Asian women experiencing mental ill-health.

It’s been a whirlwind ride, but incredibly satisfying to invest time and small amounts of money in organisations which often miss out on bigger funding opportunities. And most importantly, by extending TimeBank’s reach into local communities we will provide the opportunity for many women who would not otherwise get the chance to learn English.

You can see more about our Talking Together project here. 

*Bostin means very good in Black Country dialect. The dialect is a source of pride in the Black Country and is still widely spoken in towns and villages.  It has led to a number of words and sayings, such ‘Ow bin ya?’ for ‘How are you?’ and ‘babby’ for ‘baby’. 

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Happy Christmas volunteering!

Yesterday we did our Christmas Party volunteering and yes I know it was April 30, which is some time after Christmas! The thing was, in December we were busy moving offices in London so I postponed our Christmas ‘do’ and promised staff we’d do it in the New Year.

The trouble is that there is always something going on and it just gets put on the ‘too difficult to do’ list. But we finally set a date.

Last year for our staff away day the Birmingham team came to London so the London team headed  to Birmingham this time. 


At TimeBank we have volunteered every Christmas for the last three years – we’re a volunteering charity, yes, but actually it’s because it’s more fun and rewarding than a traditional Christmas party and it’s more inclusive for a diverse workforce. We still have the meal and drinks afterwards – but volunteering first makes you feel good about yourself, you’ve made a difference and you have a common achievement to talk to your colleagues about.

We thought others would like to try it too so we put on Christmas volunteering events as part of our employee volunteering offer, though more traditionally through November and December! 

Volunteering takes many forms and with our five days volunteering leave staff tend to do the things that they really care about which are usually skills based. But for a good team building activity that makes sure everyone can be involved we did an environmental challenge at the Ackers Adventure Centre – a charity that provides access to open space and adventurous activities in over 75 acres of diverse landscape in the centre of Birmingham.  


There really was something for everyone – those with bad backs and one of our pregnant colleagues were on light litter picking duties, others painted benches or cleared  ponds in fetching waders or dug out tyres long buried in an area being redeveloped. It was utterly exhausting but great fun to be mixing with our colleagues from Birmingham and Scotland – to be doing something altogether in our fetching orange T-shirts, occasionally with the added fashion statement of a poncho fending off the April showers, encouraging one another to push that extra bit to dig something out or cut down another bramble!


Afterwards of course we went for a meal and shared our day over a wonderful vegetarian Indian spread, and for those of us inclined a very cold beer! 

As one of the team said:  “You should cancel Christmas more often Helen – that was a fantastic day.” From  Scrooge to hero in one hit! But there was only one winner, volunteering – simple, it wins every single time – give it a go.

If you’d like to get your company volunteering, take a look at our Spring into Action campaign

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