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

Volunteers open up the digital world to English learners

If you’re reading this then you probably take it for granted that you can do an online search, navigate a website and send an email.  For some of the women who attended our Together Online workshops last week it was the first time they had ever been online. For others it was a chance to improve their knowledge and skills in a friendly, patient environment.


Together Online is a pilot programme offering one day workshops to people for whom English is a second language.  The workshops are aimed at people who already have basic computer skills but want to improve their knowledge about using the internet.

We started with an activity where the women created their own ‘picture boards’ documenting the main things they would like to learn during the session. Ideas included finding jobs, booking train tickets and flights, searching for online bargains, navigating school websites and keeping in touch with friends and family to name a few. The big surprise of the morning was when Surjit, a 79 year old woman announced confidently that she wanted to learn to Tweet using her tablet! We reassured Surjit that if that was what she wanted to learn then that’s what we would teach her.

Surjit’s example demonstrates the ethos of the day: it was all about reaching personal goals. After a taught session on doing an online search, learners had free rein to focus on their individual interests.  Volunteers were on hand to provide support and a helping hand whilst always encouraging the women to have a go for themselves and learn through trial and error. Taking this approach hopefully means that once they leave the workshop the women will be able to rely on knowledge and intuition rather than rote learning.


In the afternoon, after covering online safety, the women were set a task to practice their new-found skills. We discussed the fact that being online can not only have a positive effect on our lives as individuals but can help our communities as well.  It turned out that only a few of the women were aware of who their local MPs and Councillors were or how to contact them. By the end of the session they had all successfully found out their names, different ways of contacting them including Facebook and email, and when and where the Councillor’s Advice Bureaux’s took place.  One of the women also spent time searching for voluntary positions and hopes to contribute to her community in this way.

The two workshops were held at Asian Women’s Centre, Hockley and Ileys Community Centre, Smethwick. The learners ranged in age from 24 to 79 and were from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Somalia as well as Romania, Iraq and Afghanistan.  It was a great opportunity for the women to practice their English and learn some new vocabulary as well. The day was made all the better by the delicious vegetarian Indian food and Somali cuisine provided by the centres.


As ever, our volunteers made the day for us. They patiently supported learners with their individual needs. Many of the women said that whilst their children were regular Internet uses they rarely had the time or inclination to pass on their knowledge. Having someone spend one-on-one time with them made all the difference to their skills and confidence. ‘I’m excited to show my son what I can now do on the computer’ said one of the women after the session.

We are now organising focus groups with the learners and gathering feedback from volunteers and delivery partners so that we can develop the workshops for the future.  The resounding feedback so far has been that people can’t wait for more sessions!

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The rewards of volunteer mentoring

Over the last six months I have been volunteering with TimeBank’s Talking Together project as a language teacher and a mentor. Although both roles share the same goal of inspiring confidence and improving spoken English, after donning both hats as a mentor and teacher they have proved different in their challenges.


When I began mentoring at the BWA in Small Heath, I had just finished my first teaching group. I would now be working in a team to plan sessions with my fellow mentors Amy and Reena, shifting my focus from delivering individual areas of language to the individuals themselves; their wants, needs and goals.

The first major hurdle I experienced as a rookie mentor was how to go about helping the women in the group identify major life goals and decisions using a language they were still developing. That’s where us mentors had a secret, powerful weapon … good, thoughtful lesson planning!

Something I have definitely learnt from teaching is to start small and build from there. A simple idea and activity such as a memory game gets the group talking, introduces a topic and leads to a larger discussion, from shopping to daily routines to future life plans and beyond. Then in our individual mentoring groups we can expand on the larger group activity and/or focus on a key area in detail depending on the women's choices.

If you’ll forgive the lazy metaphor, we as mentors are the initial push of the bike and it’s the mentees that do the pedalling, with the security of knowing we’ll be there to dust them off and put them back on the saddle if they fall. We are mentors not teachers, we are a guiding force but the mentees have to be active in their learning which is why the emphasis should always be on getting the group talking and keeping the amount of time our mentor mouths are flapping to a minimum. This can prove difficult for people who lack confidence and are used to a teacher/student situation. It took time to communicate to the class that they needed to put their pens down and to get more comfortable speaking conversational English with each other.

All of this was building up to the group trip in the fifth week of the course where the ladies had the opportunity to practice that everyday English with other people. Unlike teaching which has a more structured, module based course, the mentoring group select their own areas to focus on and the trip gave them the chance to use what they had developed outside the classroom.

The trip to The Pen Museum in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter involved bus travel, navigating across the city centre and lunch in a restaurant. All everyday activities that require a little confidence and spoken English. This is what we had been building up to, and the women in our group really showed how empowered they are with real self-assurance and enthusiasm. I can honestly say I had a real, satisfied, warm feeling afterwards - and it wasn’t from the buffet lunch.

It seems a pointless question to ask whether my time as a teacher and mentor has been a worthwhile experience. All you need to do is look at the photo as the students receive their certificates at the end of the course. Each beaming smile says it all - and that includes my own.

See how you can get involved in our Talking Together project.           

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Employee volunteering is a great way to make a difference in your local community

We were delighted when the biopharmaceutical firm Celgene, based in Uxbridge, said they wanted to do something different for their annual Community Action Day by helping a local primary school.

It also happens to be Spring into Action, which is TimeBank’s campaign to encourage more businesses to get their staff volunteering. It’s a great way to volunteer and make a real difference in your local community – in this case the volunteers helped to inspire primary schoolchildren with a love of reading by transforming the school library into a magical Wizard of Oz themed reading corner.

On the day the volunteers displayed great project planning and execution, as well as superb team work and communication skills to complete everything all in one day. 


The focal point of the reading corner was a spectacular yellow brick road mural painted on the library walls, including drawings of iconic characters such as Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. A small group of the volunteers even had time to do some painting and a spot of gardening to spruce up the school playground.

The enthusiasm and dedication of the volunteers to do a great job for the pupils was a pleasure to see. At the end of the day the children gave their new reading corner a rating of 20 out of 10 – an impressive score from some very tough judges! 

Neha Dhadwal, Learning and Development Co-ordinator at Celgene said: “All in all we had a fantastic day. It was brilliant to take a day out and contribute to such a pivotal part of the school where the children can learn in a relaxed yet productive way. TimeBank did a fantastic job co-ordinating this – thank you Richard!” 


The volunteers exceeded expectations and demonstrated how employee volunteers can support the local community and young children. Reading and writing are core skills for any child’s future and with their new reading corner, many more pupils at St Matthew’s in West Drayton will be motivated to read and learn.

If you’d like to get your team volunteering, there are some great ideas here or contact Richard on 020 3111 0728 or email

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Reaching out to hidden carers in the West Midlands

Despite it being Carers’ Week, there are still thousands of people who don’t even realise they are carers. Carers are those of us who look after a relative or friend on a regular basis and who may end up adapting our own lives in order to do so.

Life as a carer is challenging, and the role is often taken on in a crisis. A carer might give up work as a result and be living with the uncertainty of not knowing what the ongoing needs of the person they look after will be in future. Often the role is so intense that the carer does not stop to consider the implications for their own health and well-being.

Couple this with having a lack of spoken English, and low confidence in interacting with agencies or travelling on public transport, and the results can be pretty devastating.


Bearing these twin challenges in mind, TimeBank designed and set up a programme for Hidden Carers that ran from May till June. The pilot has been providing workshops to carers who have low levels of English and need support to access support and understand their rights.

The Care Act which recently came into force allows carers the same rights to an assessment of need as those they care for. It also gives them rights, under certain criteria, to a carer support plan and personal budget. Passing on this information as well as outlining the variety of support groups and agencies has been part of the task of the project. In addition, carers have been improving their understanding and use of the language they need within the caring role and the terminology associated with it.

The workshops themselves have provided a safe place for carers to share their stories and gain strength and support from each other. In particular, the module on looking at their own needs and options for support has been met with relief and tears as carers realise they are not alone and that there is a system out there designed to help them.

We very much hope to build on the success of this pilot and are now gathering the learning from carers, tutors, and delivery partners so we can reach more hidden carers in future.

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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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