Podcast Episode: Why volunteer?
Category: Social work (general)
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
CL - Claire Lightowler
CL This recording was made on 8th May 2013 in Stirling. We were joined at Volunteer Development Scotland’s office by a number of volunteers to talk about what motivates them to volunteer and what their experience of volunteering has been.
Welcome, I am Claire Lightowler from Iriss. It’s 8th May and we are in Volunteer Development Scotland’s offices in Stirling, and I am joined today by 9 volunteers who very kindly offered to talk about their experiences of volunteering. So everyone, I would like to ask you first what initially attracted you to volunteer?
F To help other people, gain some insight into how other people are and what needs they have and how you can fit yourself into that and give some of your time.
F I have always volunteered since I was a teenager, when I volunteered in the children’s home, and since then I have been involved in volunteering with different projects of different kinds - a lot of the time to try to make my own community a better place to live in by volunteering. I just enjoy making the community a better place to live, so it’s … and I like interacting with people and hopefully improving their lives.
M I retired as a teacher, and 6 months down the line I was getting, you know, “what’s life all about - I need something, I’ve no purpose in my life” - and I didn’t really think about going back into employment and I saw an advert as an audiology volunteer, and it’s tremendous because what it does is it gives you back that feeling of self-worth and you feel valued, plus you are back to interacting with people - and I think that is the big part of it - the fact that you are, as well as helping people, you are communicating with them. For me it has been tremendous. And from there I am now in part time employment as well, so it kick started my life again.
F I felt the same actually - I moved from Edinburgh to this area, so I really didn’t know anybody at all, and my first volunteering job was doing reception work at Strathcarron Hospice, which stood me in good stead for what I now do in the Oncology department in Forth Valley Royal Hospital. And it was a means of making friends, and as you say, I wasn’t ready to vegetate when I took early retirement. So I thoroughly enjoyed it and I would highly recommend it to anybody. It’s a very, very worthwhile job.
F Like the last two, I got early retirement from teaching, and I had actually taught Modern Studies, so I had taught about the Health Service. And I was still doing part time at a college and we had this video about the Health Council’s, so I volunteered for the Health Council because I felt from the inside I might be able to make things slightly better and hopefully improve outcomes for patients.
F It’s maybe a teacher thing, I don’t know, I was a teacher too. And when I retired it coincided with a second grandchild being born, and I sort of drifted into watching this grandchild. And, you know, I thought “this is going to take over”. And one day I was in a doctor’s surgery with my friend, in the waiting room, and there was a wee pamphlet there - but it was actually looking for people to go back in schools, you know, as helpers. And I didn’t really want to go back into schools, I wanted something totally different, and I thought “well if I get in touch, there might be something different”. So I did get in touch and it’s grown from there - and it was meeting people, other than little people, if you know what I mean? It was broadening out, and as you are saying there, it’s totally worthwhile and it has fulfilled everything that I was looking for, and it was fine.
F I decided to volunteer, because I suffered mental health for many years, and I decided to go back once I was better. So I now volunteer to work with people with mental ill health and support them to get better.
F My situation is slightly different in as much as I lost my husband very suddenly 6 years ago at Strathcarron. And a year later they wrote to me and said would I like some bereavement counselling. And I went along, and I don’t know how this worked, but I ended up helping out in the kitchen. But I heard them say something, and I have got my Food & Nutrition, because my husband and I had retired and bought a hotel in Callander. So of course when he died I am stuck out in Callander. So I then had to move back to where we lived before, back in Polmont, and I went into the kitchen that day. And that was 5 years ago, and since then - I did the kitchen for a couple of year, then washed plants for a year, and as you say you get to know people and you make friends. And then about a year past in November they decided that their system for filing was archaic. So 2 of us went in a year past in November, and it was to take 10 days - we are still there and I don’t think we will ever leave. And then I suggested to the hospice that we open a shop in Callander and they suggested to me that I go and run it. So you are meeting people all the time - and it’s alright for young mums going to school and meeting children, but what you get back from it - I mean you are giving of your time, but the things you get back out of it are really quite remarkable - for every hour you give, there is pleasure in that - there is always something. The only thing I wish is that we could get some more younger people into volunteering, because I think they all think we are ladies who lunch … I don’t have time to eat lunch any more.
M The reason I started doing volunteering was I was taken out of employment because of my eyesight and went into volunteering. And before I was doing volunteering I was sitting in the house, doing nothing, climbing the walls, getting bored out my head. I thought “no, I need to do something”, so I ended up doing volunteering - going doggie walking, do can collecting with other groups and things like that. And you get to meet people, young and old - and it’s very, very enjoyable.
CL Well thanks very much, can I just go round everyone, maybe with one last question - let’s try and end on a high really, about what it is that you enjoy most, or an enjoyable experience that you have had in volunteering - just something quite short and sharp. But if we can just go round the room?
M Well it’s quite simple - in audiology, when you get a patient coming in who has a hearing problem - you deal with the problem, in some cases you need to show the patient how to deal with it themselves, but then they leave the room and they are happy. And I think that is the biggest bonus you get, is somebody who says “thanks for doing that”, and they go out happy.
F I think yes, I think the “thanks, that was a great cup of tea”, or “we don’t get that at the Beatson”, or you know, this sort of thing, and the interaction with patients and their families that come in with them as well, I think they are important too.
F I feel just to give them the TLC that they need when they walk in, and let them know that you are there for them - if they need any help, just to come and ask and we will seek out the doctor or the nurse for them - just make them … take their vulnerability from them and make them feel welcome to the unit.
M Well we do dog walking 3 days a week, and when we go down with the minibus the dogs are always waiting because they know they are getting out.
F I think meeting dedicated people on the staff side, fellow volunteers and sharing their experiences, and of course dealing with patients and relatives. It’s a humbling but very enjoyable experience - particularly the sort of oncology work - and identifying areas where people feel they need more support and being able to address that and set up courses and things after people are sort of discharged from hospital. And I think the nicest thing that I do … although removed many years from the maternity experiences, I go along to the Maternity Services Liaison Committee and get invited to events like the sort of baby events, and see all these lovely babies and speak to the mums who have just had babies - and that is really the nicest part of what I think I can do.
F I enjoy as a volunteer support worker, just working with the volunteers and chatting and seeing them smiling - especially when we are out dog walking.
F I enjoy just (… unclear) with people that are in the peer group, coming along and if they are having a particularly bad day or bad few days - the joy that they have when they come, they know they have got someone there to listen - even if it’s just giving them a cup of tea and wee sort of blether, and you know that they are going to go home feeling a lot better. We also keep in touch out-with the group - if somebody has not been seen for a few days or whatever, we get a bit concerned, so we will give them a wee phone at home and see if they want to meet for a coffee, or just to check on how they are - that gives you a lot of self-worth, and it’s treating them with a person-centred approach - each one is individual and everyone has their own needs and things to help them feel better.
F I think in my situation, it is putting back what I was given. I mean the care that I had, everything from head massages when I was staying in hospital, to someone (… unclear) was there, to just make a wee difference and think “well I have raised some money today - I have put something back”. Because I wasn’t aware of the care that the hospice can give - and until you have actually received some of it … I don’t actually know you all - but things like they have sandwiches at night and main meals through the day, and my husband didn’t like sandwiches, and the cook said to him one night “what would you like?” He said “I’d like egg and chips the way my mum used to cook it, in the chip pan”, back she came with egg and chips … just the wee things that make a difference. They are not anything that cost money, but the care was just unbelievable, and I am in and out of there, and I think if you can put a wee bit back - even if it’s singing terrible songs to them about Glasgow’s tenements and things, you know, playing the piano - just odd things. But it just makes a difference - putting a smile on somebody’s face, and as you all say, somebody saying “thank you”.
F I think for people with dementia, I mean it’s taking time out to sit down and actually listen … give them a listening ear - because people don’t think … they may not have communication very well, but they understand a lot of what is said to them. So it’s treating them as people - they are all people at the end of the day, and just, you know, if you are the daft one dancing around the ward with an umbrella to ‘Singing in the Rain’, a smile on their face and a bit of laughter - that’s reward in itself.
CL So it sounds like there is a lot that you enjoy about volunteering actually - do you plan to volunteer for many more years? This is your life?
F Volunteering isn’t without its hurdles sometimes - I mean it’s not just straightforward.
CL Do you want to tell us a bit about …
F Overcoming the hurdles and learning from them brings something positive to … makes more of a challenge. And it’s quite difficult working often with professionals, because sometimes they don’t see us as part of their overall team … they see us as a threat to their jobs, which we are not. But it’s changing that culture.
M Yes, I totally agree with what you are saying about the threat. When we first started there was a certain number started, and we were not really …
M … acknowledged. Now, 2 ½ years down the line, we are part of the team, and you know, you feel valued.
F I must say, I can’t find that in oncology, and I am sure you will agree - we are made … we are met with open arms when we go in, you know, and we are very much part of the team.
F Oh very much.
F I happened to say one day to a patient … she asked me a question and I felt it was out-with my remit, and I had said “I’m only a volunteer”, and I went to get the nurse to have a chat with her, and she said “Moira, you are not just a volunteer, you are a very important person”. And, I mean you go out feeling 10' tall from doing your voluntary work - you really feel “I’ve done somebody some good today”, you know, and it’s a great, great feeling.
F I think the staff, you know, that was one of the things when we moved from the old hospital to the new hospital, you know, and we realised that there were going to be housekeepers and how would they interact with us, and would they accept us and everything like that, and you did the wee training bit and you got your hygiene things and everything. And you found that they were a wee bit apprehensive as well, you know, and then we just all seemed to gel, but I think a lot of that was down to the staff in the unit, and even before you enter, you know, there is the big statement about what this ward is and everything like that - and it mentions everybody and the volunteers are mentioned there too, you know, that “we cannot operate without our volunteers” - and we are really very well accepted.
F Oh aye, yes, definitely.
F I think it’s important if someone is going to use you as a volunteer, that they introduce your role to the people that you are going to be working with, and you know, through the Patient Panel, that has been done in most cases. And like you, I feel everybody in oncology is so valued … seems to value your contribution so much. But in these harsh economic times, sometimes people may feel that someone assisting in this way is a threat, because they may redundancy in the future because somebody is doing this. But I don’t think that is a very common experience - in most cases, provided the ground work has been done, I think people are happy to involve you. And you do become, as you say, part of a ward.
M I think one of the big issues - what you said there about the patient accepting the volunteer as part of the team is a major turnaround, because in the past it would be the white coat scenarios, but we are accepted.
F It’s not just within hospitals that there are volunteers though - at Open Door we have volunteers working in charity shops and the Cat Protection League and Riding for the Disabled, and we have got volunteers doing loads of things - there are lots and lots of different things, so much.
F It’s your own life experience that has taken you into that?
F Because you feel you have got something to give back.
F I think what Lady (… unclear) said, I think (… unclear) senior management in organisations where I have volunteered really don’t bump into you … I can think of one particularly person who really should be taken out and told how important volunteers are - and I mean I can think of one person who doesn’t give the time of day to volunteers, because she doesn’t think she has to - and it’s so wrong. Whereas just for somebody to say “oh that was awfully kind of you”, or “thank you”, “it’s nice to see you”. But, you know, I don’t know whether it’s the syndrome of “oh I am very important”, or whether it is maybe the person is shy. I just think … you know, sometimes I think when there are senior (… unclear) posts in organisations, that they should just be a wee bit more humble and wee bit more appreciative. I think that puts a lot of volunteers off, if “thank you” is not said.
F We are very fortunate as well in oncology, because we have regular meetings, say every 6-8 weeks, where we all get together, and whatever we have to ask or discuss is addressed. So if you have got something that is niggling away, or something you would like to talk about, it’s an open forum, isn’t it?
F Yes, and you know, they have started a sort of in-service for us, and we did one on communication just recently - and it was 2 of the palliative nurses who led it - and it was really useful, and a lot of other things came into it. but it was all to do with communication and that was good.
F Was that the Sage in Time one?
F I mean I think it doesn’t happen because really and truly some sort of induction for volunteers … and that doesn’t often happen because people are thrown in at the deep end, and if you are a new volunteer, they are not going to keep these volunteers, because you know, if they don’t get a thank you or they are frightened to ask somebody “can I do this” or “can I do that”, you know, they need to know what their role can be in the place.
M I think with the audiology, again it’s slightly different, because all the volunteers have to go through a formal training programme, and then once they have been assessed as being practicably competent, then they are fed into it. And we have, just as oncology, we have regular meetings - sometimes it’s just general business meetings, but other times it’s further training. And that helps keep the group together and keeps the motivation going as well.
F I think what is losing a lot of volunteers in charity shops, any charity shops, is the fact that they have gone onto computerisation. A lot of our ladies and gentlemen are into their 70’s, very intelligent people, been a lot of good teachers, a lot of nurses - but they have gone onto computerisation, they have just done it, they have just put it into all the charity shops, and it’s called Cyber Till, I thought it should have been cyber space. But we have got volunteers who can no longer price things because they can’t use the printout, we have got volunteers who can’t do the till now because it is all computerised. And it is such a shame, because I think … I have got a friend who works for Cancer Research, and she is lucky enough - she got students from the university down, but a lot of people haven’t got a computer, and this has lost us a lot of shop volunteers.
F People just feel inferior.
F It just makes them feel they are worthless, because they used to be able to write a price on a ticket and do it, and now everything has got to go through a computer. And the idea behind it is to bring Gift Aid into all the shops, and of course then the charities get 25% more - but what is happening is Gift Aid is so difficult for these volunteers to do that things aren’t going through the way they should, and these people do feel … I mean I know that I have got 3 friends that have said “there is no point me coming in now - there is nothing I can do”, and you say “well you can still do the window and you can still dust shelves and you can still do all the things that we all do” - but just because there is no training. You are just thrown in and nobody has trained on these tills, and they are so complicated. I mean it’s a shame - the volunteering sector in the charity shops has lost a lot of people.
F It’s a shame they haven’t trained the people though.
F But the trouble is that it’s sometimes out-with the remit of the person who doesn’t know how to do it.
F Because there is computer based training that they can go away to a quiet place and you are training them …
F The trouble is we don’t have a quiet place in the shops - it’s while they are there it’s ongoing all the time, but as I say we really have lost a lot of people, that just feel they can’t cope. They will have no computer in their house. I mean a lot of them are on the internet and things like that, but it’s an awful shame. Because there are people who have maybe been volunteering for 20 odd years, and they are maybe nearer 80 than they are 60, and it’s just a shame.
M You are identifying a need that perhaps the volunteer sector should be appropriately addressing in conjunction with the charity shops - if they are bringing in this computerisation, then surely together they should be creating a package and inviting people in, and just as you said earlier on, preparing them for volunteering.
F This is the problem - there isn’t the time, or there is not like … say you have got 50 shops all over the place and someone can only give you 4 hours a week, and it means that somebody else who has given 4 hours has got to spend time … it’s just a shame that the training for volunteers isn’t there. If you can manage to do what you do, you go and you do it, but there really isn’t a training package … you are saying that in Audiology there is a training package - but within charity shops there is not.
M But that is not an answer …
F No, it’s not an answer.
M What they need to do now is say “we have got to change” - and I think people in Oncology and Audiology … we, together, have worked a change, and I think this is maybe something that the charity shops and the volunteer groups need to get together on.
F Well if you get younger volunteers in, they just manage the computers without any problem.
F Most of our volunteers are young, it’s all been people that has got mental health issues, it’s generally younger people, isn’t it, and it’s more of a case of giving them a sense of self-worth and getting back into work, rather than retiring and trying to find something to fill their day. We are more about … not necessarily getting them back to work, there is not always the end goal - but for some it is the case of trying to get them back into work, you know, so …
M Open Door, they do a test …
F They do a volunteer programme that you have to go through before you can volunteer.
CL So there is a lot of different experiences, depending on your age, your personality and dealing with the supports around you, isn’t there?
F There is so much involved in volunteering - different benefits and everything.
F I think the NHS are very good in that way, because I know the Patient Panel - their training courses for staff, if they have places you can go along and you can do sort of IT training. Even, as you were saying, the Sage in Time training for communication - and that is a valuable opportunity. And again, what I found valuable going along, is speaking to members of staff and it is kind of stopping a kind of “them” and “us”. I think you can identify common problems and see where some of the problems originate, and that there is never an intention, it’s just the pressure of work, etc, which has caused sort of breakdowns in communication in particular. But that is one major advantage, I think, that volunteering for the NHS has - you do have the opportunity for training and we do have social get-togethers as well on the Patient Panel, and I think that’s important.
M I think also, you know, okay the majority of us are retired - and to continue education, you know, to continue to learn is what I’ve … from my volunteering I am now working part time with criminal justice, so I have got a whole lot of new certificates - but a totally different area from where my years of employment were. So you are continuing to learn. The younger ones, they are going through a training course, so they are learning new skills, and just because you reach the age of 60 doesn’t mean to say you stop learning, and I think we should be driving it.
F Yes, I think you should have personal development throughout your life, it’s not just …
F We have all got something to give, definitely.
F And I think the skill that people who are using volunteers should have, is to identify what your skills are and make the full use of them, which many do.
F Volunteers are so valuable, you know, a lot of services wouldn’t cope without volunteers.
F That is true, very true.
F A lot of them, a lot of services.
CL Thank you everyone, it was very inspirational to hear your stories, really appreciate it.
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