Blog

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

What a fantastic year!

I can’t believe it’s December already and I’ve nearly completed my first year at TimeBank. It’s been a few months since my last update and the end of a year is always a good opportunity to look back at all that’s been achieved. I’m constantly amazed by the dedication of our staff, volunteers and beneficiaries - none of this would be possible without your help and support!

Our Talking Together project funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) offers informal, everyday language training to marginalised residents - primarily women - who have little or no knowledge of English. Our practical input helps transform lives, open doors and contribute to community integration. 

By the end of March 2020 our volunteers will have helped well over 1,500 beneficiaries and I had the pleasure recently of attending one of the classes at the Sikh Community Centre in Leicester with my colleague Lucy, staff from the MHCLG and our inspirational volunteer Divya and her amazing group of learners.  They talked confidently using everyday scenarios even though there were a number of strangers in the room.  As I write this update, the election result has just come in, and hopefully in the new year we will hear from the MHCLG as to whether we can continue this vitally important programme for another year.

I’ve also made a number of visits to Scotland to see my colleague Ali and how the Shoulder to Shoulder Online project is going which is funded by the Forces in Mind Trust (FiMT).  Over the next 12 months we will build on our previous work with ex-service men and women who have been affected by mental health issues or having difficulty adjusting to civilian life by piloting a new online video mentoring platform to link 30 beneficiaries with online volunteer mentors.  This project is being evaluated by The Lines Between who are based in Edinburgh and we’re really keen to see the results of this project to help shape our future models of mentoring.

Employee Volunteering (EV) has been going from strength to strength from cooking at community kitchens to spending the day in a foodbank or improving community outdoor spaces and thanks to the hard work of our EV team thousands of corporate volunteers have been supported through TimeBank in giving back to their local community and having fun while doing so.

20th Anniversary in 2020

In 2020 TimeBank will be celebrating its 20th anniversary of running rewarding volunteer experiences that make a lasting impact to the lives of the beneficiaries and their communities.  We’ve got some exciting plans to celebrate including:

Our new website– launching very soon we will have a new website to make it easier for everyone involved in the TimeBank community to access the information that they need whether they are interested in volunteering or would like to get involved in fundraising for the charity.

TimeBank Voices – Our new project, TimeBank Voices will bring some of the experiences of our volunteers and beneficiaries to life through oral history recordings to go on our website, and at two exhibitions in London and Birmingham to coincide with TimeBank’s 20th anniversary.

We hope the recordings will help future generations understand how, despite facing prejudice and misconception, people from different communities contribute significantly to society and add to the rich tapestry that makes up the UK.

So once again I want to say a huge thank you to everyone, to wish everyone a fantastic end of year break and a happy new year!

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The benefits of volunteering - my experience

We often think of volunteers as people who have a lot of spare time and are perhaps retired. While that can be the case sometimes – anyone can be a volunteer.

I found that as a working mum of two I didn’t think I would be able to fit volunteering into my schedule. However, working at TimeBank has given me a whole new perspective.

Every employee gets five volunteering days a year which is part of your working hours. I think that's such a great initiative for people who are working full time or like me are juggling work and family life.

What I do with my TimeBank volunteering days:

I used some of my volunteering days to give back to my daughter’s school. I knew that with my background in safeguarding and domestic violence I could use my skills to benefit the school. I delivered two training sessions for 40 teachers at the school on domestic violence and honour-based abuse including female genital mutilation.

I enjoy working with the school and I now volunteer there once a week on Mondays. I spend most of the mornings supporting the Pastoral Manager with parents who have housing, immigration and domestic violence needs. In the afternoons I am privileged to be able to work with under-achieving children. I assist pupils that are struggling with their reading and support the classroom teacher with managing the class.

What have I gained from volunteering:

Volunteering provides people with a range of benefits such as:

  • Connecting with others and making new friends
  • It’s good for your mind and body
  • Improving confidence
  • Gaining new skills and opportunities

I’ve learned so much from my short time of volunteering at a school. I have found a level of respect for teachers and the pressures they face from Ofsted. I’ve also got a more in-depth insight into how much more schools are taking on when it comes to providing support for families.

I’ve also been able to shadow and learn from senior teachers who have been in the education sector for decades. I found that volunteering has given me the confidence to put myself forward as a School Governor which has led to me becoming the Parent Governor at the school where I volunteer.

Needless to say, I’m enjoying my volunteering experience thus far. However, some people still ask me why I use one of my days off to volunteer. They ask what I’m getting out of it.

I just simply go through the list above with them. It’s always great to get people thinking about volunteering and talking about it is a great way to promote it.

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Talking Groups: getting comfortable with speaking English

We’ve been running our Talking Together project for the last five years, providing basic English classes to over 5,000 adults across London and the Midlands. Now, we’re excited to be able to pilot a follow-on programme for our learners: Talking Groups. 

For the past few years, learners and volunteers have told us they want to practice their English more before they have the confidence to attend more formal ESOL classes or to use their new language skills in real life.

As part of MHCLG’s Integrated Communities English Language Programme, we’ll provide 300 learners with an extra 6-8 weeks of sessions held at the same community venues where they’ve attended Talking Together classes. These Talking Groups will be focused on the practical use of English and getting comfortable with situations like a doctor’s appointment, school parents’ evening or a job interview.

Practice in a safe space with a volunteer they know and a group of other learners they feel comfortable with, combined with practice in realistic settings through class trips, will hopefully make using English in those real-life situations that much easier. In addition, we’ll be inviting speakers from organisations such as ESOL providers, schools and other charities to visit the Talking Groups to give learners the chance to ask questions and learn more about the things they may be anxious about.

Our inspiration when devising the Talking Groups came from both our learners and our volunteers. When visiting our Talking Together classes, we’ve noticed the same areas of discomfort repeatedly mentioned by learners. They say they struggle with understanding their child’s school report and generally want to get to grips with how the English education system works. Some find it difficult to understand letters from the hospital or don’t know what support is available after they’ve had a baby. Others are not sure how to put together a CV or the cheapest and easiest way to buy a train ticket.

Some of our volunteers have adapted the Talking Together curriculum to help address these areas and boost confidence. One volunteer put together a session for learners to role-play a parents’ evening, another planned a class to help learners understand the language around minimum wage and workers’ rights, another talked to their group about what a smear test is and how to book one.

Based on all we’ve seen, the team have created resources focused around four main themes: health and well-being, work, transport and public services, and relationships with your children’s school.

Every group of learners is different, so we expect each of our Talking Groups to be a little bit different in terms of what is covered and how. Our volunteers will choose which topics are best suited to the needs of their group and will also encourage the learners to have a say in what they want to focus on. We’re continually impressed by our volunteers’ ideas and creative ways to support learners, so we’re excited to see how they adapt the materials we’ve put together.

No matter which topics the groups choose, we’d like all learners to understand the next steps in their ESOL journey. Many will attend a class in a local community venue but not go on from there to attend more ESOL classes, often due to fears about the formal environment. We’ll try to help break down these barriers and show learners that there is plenty out there to support them to learn English once they’ve finished the Talking Together programme.

Now that our resources are ready and volunteers are trained, we’re ready and raring to get started. If you’re interested in finding out more about how our pilot goes, take a look here and keep an eye on our social media!

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Stories that need to be heard

When I walk away from facilitating a first mentoring meeting, leaving behind a new volunteer mentor and mentee, I don’t know what will come of it. I push the café door, walk onto the busy street, put my earphones in and breathe in the potential of what is to come between these two strangers I have matched.

Six months later, I sit down with these same people, who are no longer strangers, and ask them to reflect upon their mentoring experience. The energy is completely different. I sit back, enjoy the familiarity of the conversation and listen to the story they have to tell me.  Their story.

Every time that happens, I get a better understanding of the value of my work at TimeBank and of our RISE project, which supports refugees in North and East London. Volunteers on the project mentor these refugees through the challenges of looking for a job and working in a new place with perhaps different professional and cultural norms and to overcome any insecurity, isolation and anxiety they may feel about settling and working in a new country.

After just a few months co-ordinating the RISE mentoring project, I started feeling so overwhelmed by the positive feedback I kept receiving from both volunteers and refugees that I thought these stories needed to be heard, and not just by me. 

I asked some of our volunteers and mentees whether they would agree for their voices to be heard through a recorded interview so that more people could hear about their amazing experience. A lot of them agreed.

A few months down the line, what started out as an idea has now become a project of its own thanks to the amazing work and energy of the TimeBank team, notably my colleague Mark Wardman.

TimeBank Voices, thanks to funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and in partnership with the London Metropolitan Archives, will enable us to share and preserve the amazing experiences of our beneficiaries and volunteers across the UK. 

I can’t believe this is really happening. I hope you enjoy hearing their stories as much as I do.

 

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A week of volunteering!

It’s been a frantic few months for our Employee Volunteer team this summer, with groups of corporate volunteers out most days.

We partner with a wide range of small charities and community-run organisations so our volunteers get an amazing choice of activities in which to participate. This variety was on show in July when our colleague Mark took part in five consecutive but very different days with volunteers from the tax advisory firm Frank Hirth and media data management company Mediatel.

Monday

The sun has come out (occasionally) and as a result our environmental days have been incredible popular, with teams wanting to make the most of their day out of the office. The first of this week’s volunteering days took place at a very hot and humid Wormwood Scrubs in West London where the brambles have gone into overdrive and most of the pathways covered by an impenetrable wall of the overgrown, thorny plants. We equipped a team of 20 volunteers with saws, loppers and pruning shears, and set about clearing these paths once more. It was hard work in the hot weather but incredibly satisfying to see the paths slowly open back up again. A few sharp eyed volunteers were even treated to a sighting of a common lizard scurrying into the undergrowth.

Tuesday

The second group of volunteers this week had a much more sedate volunteering experience at Wandsworth Work and Play Store. This fantastic charity takes donations of waste and surplus materials such as paper, paint, textiles and much more and upcycles them to provide art supplies for the local community. These materials are processed by volunteers, without whom the charity would struggle to exist, and then displayed in the store’s supermarket-style treasure trove.

Wednesday

TimeBank supports a range of foodbanks who provide emergency food packages to people who are struggling in the local community. On Wednesday, our team of volunteers were at Dagenham Foodbank in East London. The day started with a ‘supermarket sweep’. The group were split into two teams, equipped with small budget and a shopping list of non-perishable items needed by the foodbank. Each team then raced to be the first to buy all their items within budget. The afternoon was then spent sorting, weighing, labelling and dating food donations for the food bank, ready to be given out to the service users later in the week.

Thursday

I took a group of volunteers to help a charitable housing provider working within the borough of Tower Hamlets. Many residents in this area are elderly and unable to keep their gardens in check, so are reliant on others to do this for them. We split into two teams and knocked on the door to introduce ourselves to the resident whose garden we’d be working in. We then spent the day removing weeds, cutting the lawn and pruning rose bushes, much to the joy of the elderly resident, who was kind enough to offer us tea and biscuits for our service.

Friday

The week finished as it started, with a day outside in the sun. However, this was at an extra special venue: the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The green space that winds its way between the London Stadium, the London Aquatics Centre and the Lee Valley VeloPark was planted with a magnificent floral display during the 2012 Olympics but has since been neglected and is in need some work. A team of four volunteers and I spent the day planting wildflowers in the shadow of the London Stadium, a brilliant way to end a busy week.

As this week shows, TimeBank partners with a wide range of small charities and community-run organisations who benefit greatly from teams of volunteers coming in to help for a day. If you and your colleagues would like to take part in one of these days , please contact the Employee Volunteering team at EmployeeVolunteering@timebank.org.uk

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The joys of cultural diversity - and the chance to meet Chris Woakes!

We are in the final phase of our Time Together project, which recruits and trains volunteers as mentors to support refugees and asylum seekers across the West Midlands. The project has run since September 2016 and for almost two years of that I have been the project co-ordinator - one of the most rewarding posts I have ever held.  

I have met such a culturally diverse group of people from all over the world.  All have different motivations for being involved in the project.  Our target for the project was to make 45 matches.  We have made 62 matches in total and still counting.  

Our volunteers are some of the most dedicated, compassionate and supportive people I’ve met, we are very lucky to have them. What is really special and rewarding about mentoring on the Time Together project is that our volunteers are in a very privileged position, meeting someone they wouldn’t otherwise have met, from a completely different culture and set of circumstances to their own.   

It offers our volunteers the opportunity to really be there for someone who might be in a very difficult situation.  They are there to give a different perspective, help them get the right information to solve a problem or issue and to listen without judgement.   

At the first meeting with our participants I explain how the project works, stipulating the boundaries that keep both parties safe.  These processes have been developed over time. There are limitations to what our volunteers can do with and for their partner. We offer training and support throughout the process.   

Some of our participants come to that first meeting disclosing some of the most distressing accounts of escaping war, persecution and abusive experiences in their home countries and here in the UK.  It can be difficult to have a reference point for the levels of trauma our participants have faced.  Some are still living with the remnants of those traumas, whilst trying to make a life for themselves in the UK.  In this situation I make referrals to specific counselling services and explain that our volunteers are not counsellors or caseworkers, but they will be there to listen, to help  them focus on their present situation and if appropriate set aims and goals motivating them to achieve those goals within a specific timeframe.  

The goal could be just for them to meet with their volunteer to talk over coffee.  Another could be to improve English skills or to work on self-belief and resilience.  Our participants have an abundance of resilience, though sometimes they might not feel that strong, especially if they are spending long periods of time alone.  Another aim of the project is to empower our participants and help them engage and be visible in their communities, widening their social and supportive networks.   

At our most recent summer tea party we had 22 volunteers and participants socialising together, some meeting a second time after our group visit to Edgbaston Cricket ground (pictured above, where they met Chris Woakes of the England squad now celebrating their 2019 Cricket World Cup) and some meeting for the first time.  We had volunteers and participants past and present in attendance sharing stories and experiences over tea and cake.  The project has people from over 30 different countries involved, making our tea party a wonderfully culturally diverse celebration of the Time Together Project. 

With the current anti-immigration rhetoric in some tabloids, social media and press, you might think that multiculturalism has failed in the UK.  In my role I see the opposite.  In our participants I see people eager to integrate, learn and be a part of British society.  In our volunteers I see British and European nationals wanting to support and help in whatever way they can to welcome and help asylum seekers and refugees assimilate to life in the UK. 

This cultural interaction offers the opportunity for people of all walks of life to come together offering sociable, supportive exchanges of time spent together enhancing the tapestry of diversity that capitalises on human kindness across and within the West Midlands.  

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

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Working closely with funders to set up innovative projects

As a small charity, TimeBank is constantly thinking of new volunteering opportunities that will help deliver positive change. Not all our ideas come to fruition and we certainly don’t believe in innovation for innovation’s sake. Good volunteering projects are driven by evidence of need.

Some of our ideas are discounted internally having worked up proposals, while others are kept on hold as we look for an appropriate funder. However, occasionally we work closely with a funder to develop an application from original idea to delivery. Such was the case with the Forces in Mind Trust

Five years ago, we worked with FiMT to secure funding to deliver our original Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine Project – supporting ex-services personnel with a trained mentor to help achieve a positive and productive life after their military service. This amazing project was able to support many ex-services personnel, but it did highlight some challenges. As the project only delivered support across Glasgow and Edinburgh, we were unable to help many potential beneficiaries away from the central belt. And many of our potential beneficiaries chose to isolate themselves and not to access other existing provision outside of their homes.

As the original project came to an end, we approached FiMT to discuss the possibility of developing an online mentoring model: we know our face-to-face mentoring model works, but we really wanted to know if the this could be replicated online and as importantly would the technology allow us to do this.

It would be great to say that at that point FiMT said “…that’s a great idea, here’s the money…”. Quite reasonably they didn’t. But unlike many other funders they worked closely with us over six months – pushing us hard to refine and revise our proposal to have the best possible chance of success. Not only did their internal grants team provide feedback, but they also have access to a research team at Anglia Ruskin University https://www.vfrhub.com/fimt-research-centre/ who were able to offer expert analysis. 

In April of this year we were awarded funding to deliver an 18-month pilot and we are now well underway. But FiMT’s unique approach didn’t end with the award of funding – they remain very much a hands-on funder. Both the CEO and Grants Manager attended the project inception meeting with our independent evaluators, a tangible demonstration of the care and commitment FiMT have to the projects they fund.

We really do believe that our online model will deliver some exciting results, offering the opportunity for beneficiaries to receive support they might not otherwise have accessed, but also the chance for people to volunteer their time in a completely new way. Over the next 12 months we will be posting updates to let you know how we are getting on and where will go next with online mentoring. 

If you’d like to know more, do take a look at www.timebank.org.uk/shoulder-to-shoulder

 

 

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The power of food for integration

I love to eat. So much so, that my friends and family often ask, 'how on earth are you not the size of a house?!' When I'm not out trying new restaurants, you can find me cooking in the kitchen, and if I'm not there, I'll be thinking about my next meal (probably while having a snack).

So, you can imagine my delight when I discovered that a key part of TimeBank's Talking Together course is a celebration, involving the sharing of food. It is my favourite part of the course, not only because of the delicious dishes, but because through the sharing of food, the outcomes of our projects are on display.

Talking Together basic English classes bring a diverse group of learners together and provide them with a space to learn English and build their confidence and make friends. Sharing food together and chatting over a meal brings the chance to talk about ingredients, quantities and numbers, timings and daily routines – all topics which are necessary to get by in life in the UK.

While also practicing English, the participants are displaying hospitality, acceptance and a sense of community and they are demonstrating the phenomenal cooking skills that they have. To see our learners who have come to the UK from across the world - Somalia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkey, Eritrea, Morocco, Iraq, France to name a few – sit around a table and share a meal and a skill is something special. You can see in the participants' eyes the nerves of wondering if everyone will like their dish and the pride when they are told it is delicious. The boost of confidence that comes from someone accepting and enjoying a part of your culture is invaluable.

Louise Casey says that integration is a two-way street; for it to happen you must be willing to accept others and to give some of yourself in return. Our volunteers as well as I, always enjoy taking part in the celebration feast as it gives us a chance to try something new but also share a part of us that the learners may have not tried before. Exchanging a samosa for a flapjack or a chapati for a piece of Battenberg cake might not seem like a significant act, but it opens doors to a world of exploration, starting with the taste buds and leading to a place of infinite possibilities for both learners and volunteers alike.

Up and down the UK, there are opportunities for us to explore different cultures through food. Where I live in Coventry, there are at least 10 Turkish restaurants as well as Persian, Lebanese and of course the many Indian and Chinese options. There is also a social enterprise called Arabian Bites which is run by new Syrian arrivals to the city who are using food to integrate into the city and share their culture and skills.  All around us are opportunities to integrate and explore through food, so next time you are thinking of going out for food, expand your horizons and see what new cultures await you. This time last year I would never have guessed that biryani would become a breakfast staple for me, yet I often find myself with a plateful at 10am... and now I wouldn’t want it any other way!

 

 

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