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

Banners, balloons and biscuits

Last week was Carers Week. It seems like every cause has an allotted day or week dedicated to them – this week is Small Charity Week.  Often support organisations are accused of working in silos, not talking to each other and not promoting themselves sufficiently to the people who need their help. Casting the spotlight on a particular cause is a great way of getting a message across and reaching out to people.

Our Carers Together project in Birmingham recruits volunteer mentors to support carers, both online and face to face. As a volunteer project wanting to extend our base of both volunteers and beneficiaries, Carers Week was an excellent opportunity to get out there. Carers are a particular challenge as they often don’t access services provided directly for them, but come into contact with services through the person they care for. Part of the purpose of Carers Week is to make people ‘Carer Aware’, that is to help people recognise that they form part of a large group of people in a similar situation, who have shared needs, that can be addressed if they access services.

With this in mind, getting us out there took us to three very different events:

Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Trust Carers Event

Things are changing around how mental health is perceived. There is still a lingering attitude that people who provide support for those with a mental health problem are not ‘real’ carers. Experience of our carers tells us something very different. The stresses of caring for someone with a mental health problem can put a lot of strain on a carer. This event was to encourage carers to look after their own mental health, and asking from support from Carers Together is an excellent way of doing this!

Chinese Community Centre Carers Event

This was perhaps the liveliest and most joyful carers event we have ever attended - starting with games, followed by presentations, prizes and a communal lunch. The large of group of carers who attended approached every part of the day with such enthusiasm we were compelled to join them. After a few disastrous practice rounds we did manage to secure first place in the balloon retention coxless pairs. The picture was taken on the starting line and I think we can all see the determination to win found in all semi-professional athletes. Well done to Amy Cui for organising such an excellent event!

Carer Aware Training Day, Moseley Hall Hospital

Birmingham community healthcare trust employs 5000 people and their ‘Carer Aware’ event is aimed at raising the profile and needs of carers amongst the staff of the hospital. One of the things we have noticed is that caring often falls on the family member who has worked in a caring profession. Although carers who have been nurses and other health professionals may have a particular aptitude for caring it doesn’t make it any less taxing, especially if you have to juggle your home caring responsibilities with a demanding caring role at work.

All the events were an excellent opportunity for learning about the different services available to carers, to meet carers and explain Carers Together to them. It’s clear to us that carers form a large community and we are beginning to feel like an important member.

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We don't leave care - care leaves us

Starting Together is our exciting new project in Southwark, matching female care leavers with volunteer mentors. I’ve just started working as its Project Coordinator and have been getting up to speed over the last few weeks, making sure we have everything in place to get things off the ground.

There’s a real need for this kind of mentoring as women are particularly vulnerable when they leave care.  They are much more susceptible to anxiety or depression than other young people and can struggle to access education or work. They are also more likely to become mothers earlier on - a quarter of these young women will be parents by the time they leave care.

A focus group carried out by King’s College highlighted the demand for this service. It was undertaken with a group of female care leavers who spoke openly about their experiences and how hard it can be when you are suddenly ‘launched’ into adulthood. They often feel overwhelmed and unready to make such a huge transition; as one young woman put it: “We don’t leave care, care leaves us”. The group said how great it would be to have a mentor at this point in their lives; someone who could support them and help with all the challenges they need to tackle.

We are running the project with the London Borough of Southwark and the Health Service and Population Research Department at King’s College, London. The initial plan is to match 15 young women to mentors. If things go well, we’d really like to extend the project so many more young women can benefit from this fantastic service.

We hope to start matching the first mentors and mentees in July. At the moment, we can only take referrals from the Southwark Care team,so if you’d like to refer a young woman who will be leaving the care system within the next six months, please contact me to start the referral process on 020 3111 0730 or at    

Alternatively, if you would like to be a volunteer on Starting Together, I would love to hear from you. You can find out more and register online here or contact me on the details above.

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Volunteering can change lives - including your own

The Switch is our mentoring project for young people leaving Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). It’s a crucial time in their lives and the transition to adult services or life without mental health support can leave them feeling uncertain and overwhelmed.

That’s why the project recruits volunteer mentors to support them. The mentors are matched to a young person (mentee) and they meet for five hours a month – they might go for a coffee, enjoy a hobby together or explore London. It doesn’t sound like much, but simply being there for them, listening and supporting them, can help build these young people’s confidence and emotional resilience.

For one of our volunteers, Marie, mentoring on The Switch was her very first volunteering experience. She told us how much she enjoyed it – and how much she learnt about herself as well.

Marie says: “I’m really glad my mentee has achieved so much and I'm happy to have been a part of it. She is going to make a lovely young adult and she finally understands that small achievements can add up to one big amazing one!”

“I just wanted to say thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to work on this project.  In all honesty, it has been much harder than I expected, and very tiring and stressful at times, but I really wouldn't change it for the world.”

“Being a mentor has taught me so much about myself as well, which I wasn't expecting at all. I thought I was patient before, but I think this has taken it to a whole other level, and I realised that sometimes I wasn't participating in life either, so I am trying to take my own positive advice and work on areas of my life which I haven't been happy with too.  Also, I am much more aware of what kind of image I want to project to people in my life who look to me as a responsible or professional person e.g. my young cousins, at work etc, and I am much more thoughtful about what kind of role model I want to be to young people around me.”

“If you ever need volunteers again I would be more than happy to put myself forward!”

The Switch has had such a positive reaction from potential volunteers that we're no longer recruiting female volunteers. However, if you are a male, aged 21-40 and living in London, you could become a mentor on the project. You could change a young person's life  ... and possibly even your own. Find out more here.

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Does caring cause depression - or is it the lack of support?

Carers have hit the headlines over the last few months. Media, politicians and the general public are beginning to recognise the difficult situation many carers find themselves in.

Having met a lot of different carers over the last few months I know that many of them will welcome this recognition, especially when there is a lot of negative comment about those living off State benefits. ‘Scrounger’ is hard to hear when you are living on £59.75 pounds a week and providing 24 hour care. We all know that ‘scrounger’ doesn’t apply to carers, but the rhetoric associated with changes in the benefits system is creating a stigma for anyone that receives financial support from the state. Coverage that highlights the realities of caring is therefore much needed and welcomed.  

Much of the recent coverage around carers has focused on a Royal College of General Practitioners [RCGP] report that suggests carers are more likely to get depression.  At any given time 40% of carers are at risk of becoming depressed due to their caring role. Most of the report’s suggestions are quite sensible: improve GP access by allocating routine appointments and vaccinations at convenient times for carers; appoint a carers' "champion" in all GP surgeries; maintain a carers' register within the GP practice; and carry out audits to measure improvements in carer support. 

However, the report also recommends that all carers should be screened for depression. I am sure this is well intentioned, but it also may create the dystopian scenario where all carers are tested to see if they are mentally unwell, and then offered medical treatment to ‘cure’ them.  At our Carers Together project in Birmingham, we work really hard to strike a balance between understanding what a strain caring can create and recognising that carers are not a patient group. Support, information and services are welcome, but we have to be careful not to pathologise carers. 

The RCGP report suggests that carers feel a sense of shame in coming forward and asking for support. I’m sure this is true, but perhaps we are not sending out the right signals. Many of the carers I speak to suggest the support isn’t out there when you ask for it. If you have to fight hard for every inch of financial and practical help you get, and people who receive support from the state are tarred with  the tag  ‘scroungers’,  it’s not surprising that a reluctance is created around coming forward. 

The questions we have to ask ourselves are: is it the caring role that creates the depression, or is it the lack of support? And, are we even talking about depression or is it just an appropriate emotional response to a difficult situation? I hope this can be thought about because the answer to the problem of how to improve carers’ wellbeing may not be anti-depressants and cognitive therapy, but good quality care services, financial help and on-going emotional support when it’s needed and asked for.

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Anxiety management course improves outlook for Stafford prisoners

Our Shoulder to Shoulder project in Birmingham, which supports ex-service men and women who are recovering from mental health issues, was recently contacted by Jo Tomlinson, Staff Nurse at Stafford Prison, who has developed an innovative anxiety management course for prisoners.

Jo works closely with resettlement teams at the prison and recognised Shoulder to Shoulder as a key component of a resettlement plan for veterans leaving prison. A recent evaluation of the project showed that having a mentor increased veterans' sense of wellbeing, their trust and hope for the future, making it an effective way for veterans leaving prison to build on the work they've done with Jo, as well as being a valuable stepping stone towards adjusting to a new life in the community.

I went to visit Jo and a potential mentee, due for release next month.

Jo introduced me to the veteran and the three of us sat down to watch a short film made recently by The Royal College of Nursing, in which my potential mentee and two other prisoners talk movingly about how the anxiety management course has turned their lives around.

Jo, who was awarded Nurse of the Year in 2012, spoke at the Royal College of Nursing National Congress in April about the course and is campaigning for it to be adopted in prisons across the West Midlands and ultimately nationwide. She explained that it is based on the principles of care and compassion; it draws out understanding of emotions and equips prisoners with the tools to modify their behaviour, backed up by healthier self-esteem, belief in themselves and ultimately hope for the future.

The 10-week course is available to all prisoners at HMP Stafford and Jo also runs a separate group specifically for ex-service personnel, which is supported by Combat Stress.

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Thanks to CEB volunteers for transforming schools and outside spaces for children

Friday was one of those days that remind you just why you do the job that you do and love it!

More than half the TimeBank team were out on site at the CEB Global Service Day that we had been commissioned to organise for them in the UK. I say on site, but they were actually at NINE sites across London and the South East. 450 people were co-ordinated by nine TimeBank staff and 30 CEB lead volunteers who we had trained and taken to the sites in advance. It was logistically quite a challenge, particularly when you have to add in transporting 150 pairs of gardening gloves and wet weather ponchos, just in case! Fortunately the weather was kind to us and all of those have come back to the office ready for the next event we are asked to run.

Six of the sites were schools where we created reading corners in classrooms and outside spaces for children aged 4-11. Beforehand the children had told us what would inspire them to read, so volunteers arrived equipped to build space rockets (memories of Blue Peter washing up bottles come flooding back!), crocodiles, fairy tales, oceans - you name it they created it. In some of the schools children were having classes at the same time, in others they were helping – teachers were comparing corners in other rooms just to confirm the one in theirs was the best!

Meanwhile on the environmental sites, litter was picked, weeds were weeded, soil was spread, grass seed scattered, and stag beetle breeding habitats created. The feedback from these sites was simple – how did they do so much so quickly?! Never have we seen so many passionate, enthusiastic volunteers transform an environment so completely in such as short space of time. Four hours x 450 = a big impact. Just imagine what could be achieved if those people go on to volunteer again and as we all know, a good experience often leads to the desire to do more.

As for me, I spent the day with CEB’s CEO Tom Monahan, who flew in from the States specially to take part – meeting at 7.30am we headed to one environmental site to get our hands dirty for a couple of hours and then to a school to paint and stick and tie things up before meeting all the teams at a reception at the National Theatre - finally I can say I have spoken on stage at the National! And what a speech to be able to make – pretty simple, THANK YOU – from every school and every child whose attitude to reading has changed, THANK YOU from everyone who has the chance to spend a weekend at scout camp or see a biodiversity garden so far removed from the place where they live day to day. The fact that this was going on globally at all CEB’s offices worldwide shows them to be a company that truly believes in walking the talk and making a difference in their communities. So if you work for a company and want to make a difference as well as letting your staff know what a great company they work for, give us a call and we’ll put together a great volunteering day for you too.

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Volunteers' Week and Simon the ship's cat

From 1-7 June 2013 it is Volunteers’ Week, the annual celebration of the contribution that volunteers make across the UK.

At TimeBank this poses an unique challenge – not only does TimeBank work with volunteers, all our staff get an additional five days volunteering leave to pursue their own volunteering interests. So when Volunteers’ Week comes around it can be a bit of a busman’s holiday.

Our day jobs mean that we spend a lot of time recruiting and supporting volunteers delivering  our mentoring programmes. When the Birmingham TimeBank team were planning what we wanted to do, we decided we wanted to look for an activity away from this –volunteering as a team on a one-off opportunity, working on an environmental project. 

One-off opportunities bring their own challenges – something we know only too well, having spent the past 10 years connecting businesses and communities, designing and running skills-based volunteering opportunities that match companies with local community-based partners. Local community organisations need plenty of notice, expert guidance and support if they are to identify meaningful team volunteering opportunities. Even the large national volunteer-involving organisations need plenty of notice if you want to be involved. 

How to find a local community project, that would accommodate four people at short notice, and where a one-off volunteering contribution would make a significant difference? We considered the usual routes – the online volunteering opportunities website do-it, our local Volunteer Centreand the Volunteers’ Week website – all have fantastic opportunities. However, in the end it was talking about some of the great local volunteer-involving projects we had visited with partners, friends and families that led us to the National Memorial Arboretum.

The National Memorial Arboretum covers 150 acres in Staffordshire and provides a living memorial to all of those in the armed and civil services who have made personal sacrifices while serving their country. Importantly, the focus is not just military. The work of the police, ambulance and civil services are all commemorated, as are those who worked for charities. 

Particularly moving is the Shot at Dawn Memorial which commemorates the British and Commonwealth soldiers shot for desertion or cowardice. It is now accepted that the real cause for their reaction was Post Traumatic Distress Syndrome – this resonates strongly with TimeBank’s Shoulder to Shoulder programme where we support ex-service personnel suffering PTSD as a result of recent conflicts. 

What will we be doing? – we will be spending the day weeding, pruning and mulching. Each member of the team will also bring food along for a potluck picnic, so it will be a day of volunteering, team-building and good food in the glorious sunshine. Hopefully l will also have time to find the memorial shrub dedicated to Simon, a ship’s cat who “served” on the Royal Navy ship HMS Amethyst during the Chinese Civil War, survived injuries from cannon shells and killed off a rat infestation during his service, and to date is the only cat to be awarded the Dickin Medal, and have his obituary in the Times.

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Using data for social impact

We’re excited about our very first data volunteering event in London this weekend, when data scientists are volunteering their services to help third sector organisations extract real value from data.

Charities often create huge amounts of data and know that they could transform the way they deliver services if they were able to analyse it in detail. And a number of charities are already exploring the potential of open data intelligence to support their campaigning and advocacy,improve fundraising and offer more effective and targeted service delivery.

But many charities do not realise that data analysis could help them to be a lot more effective, or have the resources to investigate it in detail and find out exactly what their data needs are.

This will be an opportunity for charities to access data expertise they might not be able to afford, and for data scientiststo use their skills to help charities to perform better and make a real social impact.

The challenge is always how to bring together these two groups of people. But we have extensive expertise of matching professional skills to volunteering opportunities. We’ve been connecting businesses and communities for the last 13 years, delivering programmes for EE, BT, Ernst & Young and the Cabinet Office to name just a few. And at TimeBank, we’ve always believed that the very best volunteering comes about when people do what they are best at.

So we partnered with FlyingBinary and Charity IT Leaders to design this event. On Saturday, the charities will define the ways they’d like their data to work harder, on issues from NHS reforms to youth unemployment. Then the experts will get to work, analyzing the data over the weekend to help the charities tackle their problems.

We hope this collaboration will give data scientists a chance to have a real social impact, and voluntary organisations the knowledge to maximize their impact.

We'll be tweeting over the weekend to let you know how the event is going - look out for the hashtag #DCSociety. And watch this space for a report back on how the data scientists coped with the charities' challenges!

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