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

Behind the scenes at the Houses of Parliament

Having recently joined TimeBank one of my first tasks was to help organise our launch for the evaluation report of our Shoulder to Shoulder project at none other than … the House of Commons! This was an interesting experience and not without some surprises.

Shoulder to Shoulder is a mentoring project for ex-service men and women recovering from mental health problems (read more here) It reaches across a range of sectors (military organisations, mental health services, Government departments, charities) so there were a fairly diverse group of people to invite.

Next was a site visit to check out the room.  This was my first time in Westminster Hall, the oldest building in Parliament (built in 1097) and it really was impressive. The meeting rooms are very ornate and I was impressed to see tv screens up, showing the results of the latest votes in the House.

After we had agreed the layout and furniture, there were a few bureaucratic hurdles to overcome, with lots of different departments to contact. But everyone was helpful and I got there in the end. Then there was wine to order, name badges to prepare, IT support to think about and an evaluation report to print!

The TimeBank team arrived at Parliament bright and early after some interesting stories from our London cabbie. We cleared security minus a sharp corkscrew and set up and waited for the guests to arrive.

The speeches and presentation went well – Andrew Bingham MP, TimeBank Chief Executive Helen Walker and Orla Cronin, who evaluated the project, discussed the findings of the Shoulder to Shoulder report, which confirmed that ex-service men and women recovering from PTSD and other mental health issues felt more positive about their lives after taking part in the project.

Then to everyone’s surprise one more unexpected guest popped up from under a table – a mouse! Apparently there are quite a lot of them in the nooks and crannies of the Palace of Westminster. It’s said that a mouse even upstaged Winston Churchill when he was delivering a mighty speech once. Instead of all eyes being on him, they were trained on a small brown creature which was slowly crossing the floor of the Commons from the Government to the Opposition benches …

Thank goodness that didn’t happen at our launch. But it does seem that no matter how well prepared you are, you can’t legislate for something unexpected happening!

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Old is Gold

Engage is our exciting project for unemployed young people in Tower Hamlets in London. We support these young people to deliver their own community project – and provide a mentor to help them plan their futures. Rema talks about the fantastic recycling idea she came up with …     


My decision to take part in the Engage project stemmed from my love of volunteering and being involved in community events where people can really come together.

When I heard about Engage I thought it sounded like an unmissable opportunity. Through the programme, I developed the idea of launching a social enterprise where recycling can be implemented into fashion. The concept was to encourage people to make the most of the things they have. What I was hoping to achieve by the end of the project was to create awareness and confidence of re-using belongings.

So I organised a swap shop event in Tower Hamlets, where residents in and around the area were invited to bring and buy items.  During the planning stages of my project I was very nervous - I had no experience of managing a project in the past so it was a bit of a novelty for me. However, the great amount of support that was provided really helped me through.

My project plan changed from time to time as things did not always go to plan. Despite this the project turned out better than I initially expected which I was very pleased about.


I enjoyed the project as a whole, but what I enjoyed most was the support and guidance everyone was given.  Through Engage I have also been matched with a mentor. I wish to gain knowledge and skills from my mentor, learn from their experiences and develop my project into an established brand. 

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EE employees share their digital skills in local communities

TimeBank continues its partnership with EE (T-Mobile & Orange) to deliver a digital skills employee volunteering programme nationwide.

Within the programme we have delivered fun and informal events such as Techy Tea Parties when older guests can learn how to make the most of technology and the internet over a cuppa! However, this employee volunteering programme is not just about having a piece of cake and a chat about Facebook. Within the programme EE employees have shared their digital skills in a variety of ways – and they were recently out in Bristol as Technology Support Squad volunteers for the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).

As Technology Support Squad volunteers EE employees visit people who are blind and partially sighted to help them make the most of IT and technology in their homes and lead more independent lives. Ruth, a designer in EE’s Technology Directorate, has recently been on callout in Bristol to a RNIB client.

This lady wanted help transferring videos from her security CCTV system to a memory card. Sadly she needed the footage as evidence of neighbours causing malicious damage to her property. Ruth was happy to put her digital skills to good use in a new way.

Ruth said: “Lovely lady, she was very grateful for the help and generous with cups of tea!” Volunteers are contacted when there’s a beneficiary within a local radius, and then the volunteer calls them to arrange a visit. The callouts are on demand but average once or twice a month.

Through volunteering you can put your skills to good use, but it doesn’t mean you have to change your life. As in the case of Tech Support Squad volunteers at RNIB, you can fit volunteering around your schedule and make it part of your lifestyle. And most importantly a rewarding volunteering experience happens when a volunteer gives quality time and skills in their local community.

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Am I a carer?

I often see or hear people questioning whether they can call themselves a carer and if they’re allowed to access ‘real’ carers’ services.

Since the Carers Together project started I’ve received more than a hundred applications from people who would like support from an online mentor. Several have questioned if this is the right project for them, because they’re not sure if the type of caring they’re doing is serious enough or if it even falls under the category of caring. It’s a sentiment that is also frequently expressed on the new members section of the Carers UK forum: people precede their posts with “I don’t know if I can be classed as a carer”; “I was shocked to discover I was a carer”; “I’m not sure I should be posting here…”

Parents of children with disabilities have told me that they’ve always identified themselves as parents first and carers second, which means they’ve taken longer to access services marketed towards carers. Likewise, when speaking to partners and relatives affected by somebody else’s drug or alcohol use I’ve found that this too is a group who don’t immediately identify themselves as carers despite often providing physical, mental and financial support.

At Carers Together, I’ve received many enquiries from people caring for loved ones with mental health difficulties; again, this is a group of carers who can often feel the label doesn’t apply to them, as they believe (or have been told) that providing emotional support isn’t as valid as giving physical support or personal care.

These examples suggest that people in supportive roles who don’t identify themselves as carers could be missing out on vital services and support, and as a result will continue to struggle with the all-too-common isolation that carers experience. It’s therefore been really interesting to look through all the applications I’ve received from people requesting support and see such a wide range of caring backgrounds.

Not only are people caring for partners, children or parents but also other family members or friends, and a few are also caring for more than one person. The range of conditions are also extremely varied: they include cancer, autism, dementia, personality disorders, ME/CFS, pain conditions, Down’s syndrome, alcohol misuse, depression, arthritis, MS, learning difficulties, schizophrenia and many many more.

I now hope that previous carers with experience of the above - and more! – will acknowledge that they were ‘real carers’ and consider volunteering with us. If you think you could support others who are in a similar situation, we’d love to hear from you. Take a look here.

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Capturing the volunteering legacy of the Olympics

Three things this week have prompted me to write this blog – on Tuesday I was heading to a meeting and as I came out of the boiling hot Tube at Goodge Street I walked past none other than Lord Sebastian Coe, the man who was the Olympics – and almost certainly the only man in London still wearing a jacket and tie and looking unfazed by anything least of all the weather as he headed into the Tube. 

Secondly last night I caught the sound of that music on television – the intro to every Olympic programme on the BBC with clips of the aforementioned Lord Coe telling us how our Gamesmakers made the Olympics, and still felt those goosebumps of pride and excitement. Finally this afternoon I’ve been invited to attend Join In’s volunteering celebration concert at the re-opened Queen Elizabeth Park. Join In is the charity set up to capture the legacy of volunteering from the Olympics.

Now I have often said that we could have captured the legacy better and sooner but when I reflect on my blog this time last year it was all about getting behind the Games and not harping on about what could have been done better – so, time to listen to my own advice and start celebrating just what we have achieved this last year.

At TimeBank at least three of our volunteer mentoring projects have had to close applications for volunteers as they are over-subscribed and there’s very definitely a buzz around the world of volunteering that we haven’t seen since before the Government cuts back in 2011. I also think that we’ve changed the image of volunteering – people no longer perceive it as something that ‘only older people do’ or is restrictive because of the time commitment.

There are so many ways that you can make a difference to your local communities and make change in a positive way. And don’t forget the value to the volunteer themselves, learning new skills, meeting different people, engaging with communities they never normally would. I don’t think that there is any doubt that the Gamesmakers had an impact on the perception of volunteering or the desire of people to volunteer. It’s our job to make sure people then move from wanting to volunteer to actually volunteering and for that they need help and support to get the right role that suits them, their interests and their lifestyle.

So back to this afternoon’s event, of course Seb will be there (I think I can call him that having virtually met him at the Tube) and the Minister for Civil Society and of course Boris, the Mayor of London – I’m envisaging quite a bit of ‘Dad’ dancing to McFly and maybe embarrassed laughter at Eddie Izzard – But one thing I know for sure everyone there will be committed to and striving for an increase in the number of people volunteering, celebrating those who already do as well as remembering  those who made our Olympics. 

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Panorama's Broken by Battle showed the impact of PTSD on soldiers struggling to adapt to civilian life

This week the BBC's Panorama programme screened Broken by Battle, a documentary about the impact of PTSD on ex-servicemen. At TimeBank this is something we are very familiar with through our work on the Shoulder to Shoulder programme which supports veterans with PTSD.

Those who leave the Armed Forces with mental health problems can struggle to access the support they need to make a successful transition into civilian life. They are vulnerable to homelessness and unemployment, and may experience problems with anger management, intense loneliness, lack of direction, relationship problems, physical health issues, alcohol/substance dependency and increasing vulnerability to a range of social difficulties.

We know from our work with ex-servicemen and women living with mental health problems in the community that this is a largely hidden problem. In many cases ex-servicemen and women will not present to their GPs, mental health services, veterans or mainstream charities – they slip off the radar and are hard to reach. To address this we believe there needs to be more partnership work between GPs, statutory mental health services, veterans charities and the mainstream voluntary and community sector. There also needs to be resourcing to help identify where veterans are - and in particular those with mental health problems.

A 2012 study by King’s College London Centre for Military Health Research found that reservists were twice as likely to have symptoms of mental health problems as their counterparts who did not deploy. A 2006 study by the Royal British Legion found that veterans in the 16-44 age group had a much higher level of mental health problems than the same group in the general population.

Anger management and violence are a particular problem for this group.  Recent research in the Lancet, funded by the Ministry of Defence, highlighted the fact that younger members of the armed forces are more likely to commit violent offences than the rest of the population: in particular those under-30, where one in five had committed a violent offence. The 2012 King’s College London Centre research also found that soldiers involved in direct combat were also twice as likely to admit hitting someone at the end of the tour, with a third of the victims being someone in the family.

Family members of territorials, reservists and ex-Service personnel do not always receive the support they need to manage and understand the needs of their partners, and the unique challenges they, the families, face. In the most recent survey by the Army Families Federation (Annual Survey 2012), 30% of respondents said they have or had mental health problems, with a similar percentage unhappy with the support families and family members received from their GP.

TimeBank’s Shoulder to Shoulder programme for ex-service men and women recovering from PTSD and other mental health issues recognises these challenges and works with veterans  to make positive changes. In an external evaluation of our Shoulder to Shoulder programme by Órla Cronin Research they describe how having a volunteer mentor made them feel less isolated and brought new trust and hope for the future.

The evaluation found that many service veterans were in a state of crisis in their lives, with complex and multi-faceted problems including financial hardship, homelessness, alcohol dependency, physical health problems and mental health problems including depression, anxiety, panic attacks and agoraphobia.

Mentoring helped to alleviate their stress and isolation and helped them overcome daily challenges like taking public transport, budgeting and exercising. Some were able to start training and job hunting. Their ability to think optimistically about the future, both in setting goals, and in taking small steps towards those goals, improved over the course of the project. 

The project is the first peer mentoring project in the UK which supports ex-service men and women who are suffering from mental health issues in this way. If you'd like to know more about Shoulder to Shoulder, take a look here.

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Can exercise improve your mental health?

During Shoulder to Shoulder mentor training sessions, we teach our volunteers the Five Ways to Wellbeing recommended by Mind and the Mental Health Foundation to help maintain good mental health: ConnectBe activeKeep learningGive… and Take notice.

Recently we've been focussing on getting active. We all know that exercise is good for you, but most people tend to focus on physical health benefits – level of fitness, reduced risk of chronic illnesses, weight – so what are the benefits for your mental health?  

Physical activity has been shown to boost confidence, improve body-image, self-esteem and self-worth, and can act as both prevention and treatment for various mental health problems including depression and anxiety.

Exercise decreases the stress hormones such as cortisol and increases endorphins.  Endorphins are the body’s natural feel good chemicals, and when they are released through exercise, your mood is boosted naturally. Exercise also releases adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine, all of which can have a positive effect on your mood and energy.

Even small increases in activity can be beneficial. Just 10 minutes of moderate exercise (such as brisk walking) is enough to improve your mood, increase motivation and decrease fatigue.

A survey by Mind found that 83% of people with mental health problems looked to exercise to help lift their mood or reduce stress. Two-thirds said exercise helped to relieve the symptoms of depression and more than half said it helped reduce anxiety.

Taking part in physical activities offers many other opportunities. It’s a great way to meet people and connect with friends, or it can be a chance to give yourself some quiet time and take your mind off things. Exercise can give you a goal to aim for and a sense of purpose.

Dr. Alan Cohen, a GP with a special interest in mental health, says that when people get depressed or anxious, they often feel they're not in control of their lives. “Exercise gives them back control of their bodies and this is often the first step to feeling in control of other events.”

The great thing about physical activity is that it’s incredibly varied, so it doesn’t have to be difficult, time consuming or boring. You can find activities that work for you and go at your own pace.  It’s also something easily incorporated into your daily life – a walk, doing housework and gardening all count! 

When we train our volunteer mentors, we encourage them to do some sort of physical activity when they meet up with the ex-servicemen and women they are mentoring. It could be something light to start with like joining a gardening club or walking around a museum, or something more active like joining a gym, swimming, yoga, hiking in the countryside or playing sports such as football and rugby (all things suggested  by the veterans on Shoulder to Shoulder). It doesn’t have to be anything big - for some people something as simple as leaving the coffee shop and going for a walk in the park once in a while can make a huge difference.

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Young people in Tower Hamlets are delivering some great community projects

Engage is our new project that matches volunteer mentors with young people living in East London who are not in education, employment or training.

The idea is to support them to develop and deliver a community project of their choice in the borough, which will help them learn new skills and grow confidence.

Engage is now in its ninth week and the 10 young people from Tower Hamlets have come up with some really exciting community projects, from arts workshops to clothes swaps, face painting and a football tournament. They are working hard to finalise them before delivering the projects in the borough over the next couple of weeks. 

As part of the programme, we have delivered training sessions on planning a project, how to budget, marketing and communications and monitoring and evaluation.  We have also recruited mentors to support the young people and they have all completed their mentor induction and are eager to start sharing their skills and expertise. As part of the mentor induction we invited Mahdi Alam, the mayor of Tower Hamlets, who shared some useful tips on how to engage with young people.

 I am really looking forward to seeing the delivery of each of the projects – and given all the effort that the young people have put in to plan each one, I’m sure they'll be a great success.  Watch this space to find out from the young people themselves how they got on!

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