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

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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Vive la difference - one size doesn't fit all

This week we are celebrating with our volunteers on our Midlands projects – Talking Together, Time Together and Hidden Carers.

Over the last three years we have recruited more than 300 amazing volunteers to deliver these projects. It led me to thinking about what they all have in common and l think the answer is practically nothing. But far from being a cause for concern, l think we should celebrate this. Our volunteers cross social, educational, ethnic, cultural and political divides. They range from their early twenties to well into retirement.

So what brings them all to TimeBank? (ok, so they do have one thing in common!) Well, l could bang on about the trust people place in TimeBank as an organisation, our fantastic Project Co-ordinators who recruit, train and support them, our 17 years of developing and delivering cutting edge volunteer led programmes that bring about social change, the importance we place on good volunteer management and of course the need to recognise and celebrate the achievement of volunteers. All of which are really important to delivering a successful volunteering programme, but that would be to miss the point.

I was once invited to sit on a panel of the great and good in the volunteering sector at a national conference on how to increase interest and take up in formal volunteering, and what might be done to address this. Obviously, l prepared notes and rehearsed my arguments – how CEOs need to buy into volunteers and understand why and what volunteers can contribute to achieving an organisation’s mission and values, having paid volunteer managers, clear role descriptions, allowing volunteers to have real influence in your organisation etc. When it came to my turn to speak it suddenly occurred to me that l was talking to an audience of voluntary sector professionals and that my answers were all tailored to meet their expectations – rather than to address a really straightforward issue. So l ditched my notes and said: “It’s pretty easy really, just stop offering people rubbish opportunities to volunteer.”

So perhaps our volunteers do have something in common – we offer exciting and interesting opportunities that people want to do: opportunities that make a real difference in a role that they could not find anywhere else in either a paid or unpaid capacity. We accept that the motivation to volunteer will be different for all our volunteers – for some it is to support a transition in their own lives; to develop new skills to change careers; to broaden learning before going on to new educational opportunities; or a change in life stages, for instance retirement.  Many just want to contribute in interesting and challenging roles to give something back to the community.

So whatever an individual’s motivation to volunteer is, and the TimeBank project they volunteer on, we believe that they benefit equally from their involvement. So thank you TimeBank volunteers for your amazing contribution to all of our projects new and old, but thank you also for all being so different.

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Getting help in an emergency if you don't speak the language ...

Celia volunteers on our Talking Together project, teaching basic English to women who can't speak the language. She describes the challenge of getting help when there's an emergency.

‘When I first arrived here, I called 999 practically every day – until they told me to stop!’ said one of my students.  My class is all female, a mix of Turkish and Somali ladies with school-age children who have all been here a few years.  Our topic this week is emergency services and we’ve been doing role-play. I quickly realise that there’s a lot more to it than simply learning essential vocabulary and practising a script to ask for help from the emergency services operator.  

All the students found it very challenging to describe common emergency situations. In real life, fear scrambles your brain and affects your ability to describe what’s happening, especially in a foreign language.  There are linguistic and cultural subtleties, which are hard to clarify but important to understand. For example, in the case of an accident, the difference between ‘hitting your head’ and a ‘headache’, how to describe a personal attack or to explain your location if you’re involved in an emergency outside the home.

It reminded me of an experience I had many years ago when I first went to live in a wild and woolly place in the Middle East. Someone broke into our house at night.  In a blind panic, I ran to the nearest neighbouring house with no idea how I would be able to explain the situation with my very limited Arabic.  The best I could manage was ‘bad man in my house, please come’. Fortunately, they did come and chased the intruder away – with guns!

Another student tells me how she had to call the emergency services when she went to visit a heavily pregnant friend.  Arriving at the house, she found her friend in advanced labour.  The ambulance soon arrived and the baby was delivered safely at home. All’s well that ends well. It transpired later that her friend had never wanted to have her baby in hospital anyway and might not have called 999 if left to her own devices.

On reflection, I concluded that this class was about far more than language and that we had only scratched the surface in terms of exploring cultural perceptions of when and why they would call emergency services. There is much of importance to talk about. Domestic violence, depression and pregnancy problems were issues raised by my students.   

A basic English class may not be the right forum for such potentially controversial discussion but these issues came up. I note that currently the healthcare module only deals with physical health problems.  Perhaps it should include some mental health vocabulary too.

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

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Refugees welcome?

Today (April 25) the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees published the report 'Refugees Welcome?'. The group, consisting of MPs such as Caroline Lucas and Lord Alf Dubs, examined the experiences of refugees in the UK, with a specific emphasis on their experiences after gaining refugee status. The report highlighted the many individuals, communities and projects working hard to integrate and support refugees. However it also demonstrated the barriers refugees face.

The report found evidence of a two-tier system. When entering the UK refugees either go through the asylum process, having arrived in the UK and submitted an application or they will have been brought to the UK directly from another country through one of the Government-led resettlement schemes. Refugees arriving through the resettlement route are provided with support to find services, employment and accommodation. However, for those who have gone through the asylum system, there is no support, and they have to rely on local services that vary from location to location. One of these services is TimeBank’s innovative mentoring project Time Together operating across the West Midlands.

Working together with different referral partners, such as refugee and migrant centres, LGBT centres and faith-based and non-faith based organisations, we recruit a diverse range of people who have been or are going through the asylum process, who we then match to a volunteer. The volunteer then meets with their beneficiary for five hours a month, over a six month period. This has the aim of increasing wellbeing, reducing isolation and helping the individual to settle into UK life.

We’re only seven months into our project, but we are already seeing successes. One beneficiary is hoping to access a barbering course in a year’s time, so his mentor is assisting with improving his English language skills; one mentor is supporting an individual to find local voluntary work to utilise his skills and knowledge of ICT, whilst another beneficiary with the help of his mentor has just become a member of the local library which has led to him finding out about an English conversation class. This goes to show the impact that local volunteers are having on the lives of refugees, and we at TimeBank strongly agree with one of the report’s many recommendations that includes furthering support to individuals who have recently been given refugee status.

For more information on the Time Together project, take a look here or email

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My extraordinary journey as a volunteer English teacher

Shahin Hussain is a volunteer on our Talking Together project in Birmingham, helping to deliver English language classes in the local community. Here's her powerful blog about the impact the project is having, both on learners and the volunteers who take part:

My journey with TimeBank has been extraordinary as a volunteer teacher trainer.  You may well be thinking, well they all say that, but in fact it’s the truth. From one community centre to the next and having this opportunity to get to teach but also to integrate with different communities who have gone through many difficult stages in life and understanding their needs, respecting and appreciating their culture makes a huge and tremendous difference.

From the start I taught a range of communities - all women from different places such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Pakistan, Arabia, Yemen and Bangladesh - who all committed to learn English. The main purpose of their learning was to be able to communicate within the society where they reside by doing simple things such as making appointments, being able to say what they need in a supermarket and much more.

Although the main focus of the Talking Together programme is Bangladeshi, Somali and Pakistani women, I also taught Romanian women, who in today’s society still feel isolated and are segregated from many parts of the community. There were a lot of challenges that I had to face such as bringing the class together and physically getting them to stay for the two hour sessions and gaining their trust so that they believed that I was really there to help them. My biggest challenge: trust!

These women had a sense of embarrassment and low self-esteem because of their lack of education and felt uncomfortable attending a class which they felt they might not understand.  However, it soon began to turn into a positive and happy learning environment in which the women began to participate much more often and it was clear to me that they became very comfortable and began to enjoy the lessons. From the very first day to the last lesson, the women made a huge improvement and felt that the classes had become a stepping stone to look at life more positively and in an optimistic way.

This whole volunteering experience has given me an insight into what teaching can really accomplish, for example, the simplest things such as what ‘learning the alphabet’ can do, until you take the plunge and find those shining stars smiling at you. From the moment the students enter the classroom, you can see their enthusiasm, commitment and their desperate eagerness to learn and achieve. These women wanted not only to communicate with the outside world but also to work, find employment and most importantly to improve and progress in their lives. This is what I feel teaching can achieve, it can make a change.

As for TimeBank as an organisation, I truly believe it really makes a difference to those in need just like it has mine and those who strongly improved with its help.  TimeBank is driven to deliver and from what I have experienced it certainly has.

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


Our Journey

Not knowing where to go,

What to do,

TimeBank was like an open ocean,

Showering opportunities and more,

It’s hard to believe what we’ve all achieved,

The obstacles we have overcome,

To reach upmost assertion,

Assertion that education could outreach and bring forth,

Capability and a fresh stance to learn.

We tried and we attained,

We believed and we became,

We can now proclaim the Art of Education!

Thank You TimeBank.

                                                                                                         Shahin Hussain

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