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

I want to pass on the kindness I received to the next generation of newly arrived individuals and families

It’s just a month ago that I was at the launch of the TimeBank Impact Report at the Palace of Westminster. At that meeting I was asked to talk about why I volunteer to mentor refugees and asylum seekers and it’s a really tricky question to answer.  

But it is a question that has been asked of me by many people- friends, former work colleagues, neighbours and occasionally strangers. Often the question is a well-meaning enquiry, sometimes of genuine interest and just occasionally it is asked in such a way that feels like a not very friendly challenge.  

To answer it I have to go back to 1959 when we arrived as a family in UK, with five of us in bed and breakfast accommodation in Blackpool, sharing a bathroom with many other families, with only a basic grasp of English and little understanding of the culture and ways of life in the North West of England.  

Speaking German, or heavily accented English, was often met with indifference, for which we were very grateful. Sometimes we were met with hostility, and on occasion, aggression - a lot harder to accept passively but which we did. Life was complicated and we made many errors of judgement because of our lack of knowledge. Queuing at the tram stop was an eye opener and we quickly learned the etiquette of lining up but not without drawing hostile looks and comments during the process.  

However, the things that stick in my mind are those individuals who, without patronising or judging us, offered advice, let it be known that “it is done like this in Blackpool”, who offered a smile, a warm welcome, a silent acknowledgement that we were different and didn’t know any better and took it as their responsibility to show us how to do things (properly!).   

These individuals were rays of sunlight in a wintery Blackpool, and helped us to understand our new home, enabled us to start to build an understanding of what to do, how to behave and what to say. It was the foundation of that “cultural capital” that formed the basis of our future growth and development and informed our career paths and where we chose to work.  

My sister and I both went on to be successful at school (she more than I), becoming school teachers and head teachers. I even worked at the DfE in 2001, on the child poverty agenda, and I often reflected on the journey from those early days in bed and breakfast accommodation to Whitehall. I can only be grateful to those people of Blackpool who were, unknowingly, setting me on that amazing trajectory. Thanks to them, I have built a cultural capital that far exceeds my and my family’s needs, and it is time for it to be shared. 

Now that I have retired, I want to pass on those kindnesses of 1959 to the next generation of newly arrived individuals and families. To smile and encourage, to point out that there are many ways of fitting into our communities and sometimes it easier to know how to go about that.

So I joined TimeBank’s Time Together project, which recruits and trains volunteers to mentor refugees and asylum seekers. 

The volunteering is an opportunity to make use of the networks and connections that have been built up over the years and sometimes it is just about having 45 minutes to sit, have a cup of coffee, chat and listen, to share a joke, or a story, to remember about the days before arrival in the UK, and set goals for the future. It gives me a sense of purpose and accomplishment and every week I look forward to meeting up.  

I have learned new skills and developed new insights into the lives of asylum seekers and refugees. It has made me more active and it engages me with a wider group of people. 

Feedback from the guy I have been mentoring tells me that it has made a difference to him - he talks about being better informed, of being more confident, and more able to address the issues of isolation that many asylum seekers and refugees experience. Now that he has gained the right to remain, he is also considering mentoring an asylum seeker and I am waiting for my next assignment. Perhaps, on a good day, I am helping to make the UK a better place for small groups of individuals. Not a bad return for my investment of one hour a week.

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

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How I found myself talking about being a volunteer mentor to a packed audience at Westminster

Michael is a volunteer mentor on our Time Together project, which supports refugees and asylum seekers in the Midlands, helping them integrate into British life. Here he describes how he came to be talking about the project to a packed audience at Westminster.

A month ago I was contacted by TimeBank to talk about my first year as a volunteer, mentoring an asylum seeker in the West Midlands. Yes, of course I can, and can the mentee come with me? So we found ourselves at the Palace of Westminster at the launch of TimeBank’s impact report, and I was standing up in front of about 60 distinguished guests including trustees of TimeBank, at least one member of the House of Commons and one titled personage as well as potential volunteers and business leaders.  

I was the third of three speakers to present to the audience, who were sitting in serried rows as well as having to stand at the back and sides of the room and my nerves were a-jangling. 

I am always conscious of how I am perceived by the audience- white, middle class, bald old guy with glasses, retired, but what I wanted to get across was that each of us have a back story, that stretches way back into childhood, and which continues to inform our actions on a day to day basis. 

My success in my chosen profession has been informed and shaped by my early experiences as a new arrival in the UK, speaking little English. This informed my decision to volunteer to mentor an asylum seeker.  

Mentoring is one of the ways in which we ask the mentee to consider the short term goals they want to achieve and think about how they can be achieved, but importantly mentors can share the cultural capital they have acquired over the years, to help new arrivals know more about life in the UK, to settle in.   

It also offers a listening and confidential ear, giving time and space to the mentee that enables them to ask questions and find answers about life in the wider community, all without feeling foolish. Mentoring aims to build confidence and build capacity but also construct networks and access services that perhaps we take for granted. It enables the mentee to make use of the contacts that mentors have built up over the course of their lives and identify their own way forward. In some ways mentoring is a bit like being a good parent, but to an adult and not a child - setting boundaries and expectations, questioning, posing alternatives but always thinking about enabling the mentee to move forward.  

Undertaking the role demands a time commitment of 1-1.5 hours per week. The training by TimeBank was essential to learn about the limitations of the role and responsibilities, and the team’s support provided advice and guidance along the mentoring journey. 

I am now looking forward to becoming a “serial” mentor, and working with another asylum seeker after Easter. I will keep you updated.

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

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Changing lives through volunteering

I recently had the privilege of launching the TimeBank impact report – ‘Changing lives through volunteering’.  Whilst we have been busy making an impact we haven’t put together the story of it for a few years so it was a real treat to watch it come together and realise just how much we have achieved for people from a wide range of socially disadvantaged groups with our phenomenal volunteers leading the way. I am very proud of TimeBank every day but when we do something like this it reminds me why.

Sir Kevin Barron MP kindly hosted our launch at an event in the House of Commons and opened by underlining the importance of volunteering: “Volunteers are an amazing force, many of the services we take for granted simply would not happen without them.

And after I’d outlined the breadth and depth of our work over the last few years highlighting just a few statistics: 3,800 women taught English by 357 volunteers at 549 classes – 300 veterans mentored back into civilian life - 85 businesses enabling 4,600 staff to volunteer in their local communities – there’s lots more (it was a 10 minute speech!!) But you can read the impact report yourself here. TimeBank certainly punches well above its weight.

We then heard from our speakers about the impact that volunteering is having across a wide variety of different beneficiary groups.

Khudeja Amer-Sharif, one of our Talking Together partners from the Shama Women’s Centre in Leicester, said: “The Talking Together programme has been the first step for many women towards active integration, helping them overcome language barriers, improve their confidence so that they contribute to local life which we take for granted. It has provided them with a sense of belonging and empowered them to go on to do further learning and employment. It has given volunteers the opportunity to develop their confidence, skills and motivated many to go onto a career in teaching. It has not only impacted on the women who attended the programme, but more widely on families and communities, promoting greater integration”.

Phil Hammond from the Telegraph Media Group cited three benefits of Telegraph staff volunteering through the TimeBank employee volunteering programme: “Positive outcomes for the beneficiaries; staff develop leadership, decision-making & negotiation skills (as well as boosting morale); and it promotes the brand. Everybody benefits.”

Finally, a mentor, Michael Baxter – who volunteers on our Time Together project - spoke about mentoring a refugee to help him transition into UK life: “Who tells you about the etiquette of queuing?! Having a mentor helps with community integration and supports refugees and asylum seekers settle into their new country and understand the culture.”

Volunteering is at the heart of everything we do here at TimeBank and listening to our speakers and talking to our guests afterwards - funders, MPs stakeholders, trustees, partner organisations and staff - made me realise how much TimeBank really is ‘Changing lives through volunteering’.

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Where do you belong?

I've been thinking a lot about veterans who are homeless, since hearing of Darren Greenfield, an army veteran who sadly died on the streets of Edinburgh last month. Darren, who was known for sitting at the top of the escalators of Waverley station, was offered support by veteran's charities, but chose to sleep rough.

Since delivering Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine (S2S Erskine) over the past three and a half years, many veterans (22%) supported by the project have been either sofa surfing or are living in temporary housing or veterans’ supported accommodation. Mentors have often supported veterans moving from one place to another, even permanent housing, but at times still not feeling as though they belong. 

Add anxiety, depression or PTSD and this can make for a very lonely veteran who is socially isolated, alone in the home and often confined to one room. It doesn't help that many veterans tell me they have lost contact with family and friends and have no social circle. Just being able to talk with someone who is happy to listen helps them through the lonely days.

But it goes beyond that. It's about connecting with people; about being able to join in and feeling you belong to a community.

Since 2014, S2S Erskine has been supporting veterans to feel less anxious, develop conversation, new friendships, social circles and volunteer in their local communities: helping them to belong. One veterans’ accommodation I link in with is Scottish Veterans Residences (SVR) Bellrock Close in Glasgow. Along with the support of SVR, staff felt that Kevin, an ex-army veteran could also benefit from a TimeBank mentor.

At first, Kevin found his transition to Bellrock Close difficult. He felt lost, with no direction or focus. I matched him with Tim, a volunteer mentor. They met twice a month for nine months and within this time Tim helped ease Kevin into conversation, feel less anxious and set goals to try new activities. Tim supported Kevin to develop new relationships and interview skills and Kevin started to volunteer at the café within Bellrock Close.

He says: "My confidence and self-esteem was low, and meeting new people was difficult. Tim supported me with setting goals to focus my days. At first we kept activities local, such a as swimming at the local leisure centre and then art classes. My confidence grew and I was able to chat with more people about my activities. We built up to going into town and I became more confident using public transport. Tim is easy to talk with, he's knowledgeable, a good lad. I now feel like I have purpose and look forward to life again.”

If you know of someone who could benefit from a mentor, we are here to help. Please take a look at the Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine project here.  You can call Ali, the project co-ordinator, on 07437 437867 or email her at ali@timebank.org.uk

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Time Together means taking Time to Talk

As the project co-ordinator on Time Together, TimeBank’s volunteer mentoring project that supports refugees and asylum seekers living in the UK, I come into contact with some extremely resilient and sometimes vulnerable adults who are feeling incredibly isolated. 

Living on limited resources and having limited opportunities for social interaction with local people can cause mental distress to our beneficiaries.  This can be for a number of reasons, such as language barriers, financial difficulties, being new to the UK or being moved yet again to a strange town or city, or residual mental health problems caused by their experiences of persecution or living in a war zone. 

One thing that is apparent when I first meet them is their need to talk to someone whose attention is undivided and who is willing to give them time, whether for just one hour a week or two hours every other week. Some of our volunteer mentors have had some very emotionally draining mentoring sessions.  Others have felt as though they haven’t really done that much to help their mentee.  Yet just meeting and talking over a cup of tea or coffee on a regular basis is all that some of our mentees require. 

The power of talking to someone who isn’t connected to any other aspect of their lives can help alleviate feelings of anxiety, stress and loneliness.  I attend the first meeting with our volunteer mentors and mentees to introduce them to each other and to get a conversation going.  After 20 minutes or so I leave them to it.  I always glance back before I go and often notice the body language and demeanour of our mentee is much more relaxed than at that first meeting.

Time Together fits well with Time to Talk Day, a campaign tasked with raising awareness and encouraging conversations around mental health.  Taking the time to talk to each other about our mental health and wellbeing is a great way to prevent stigmatising and further isolating people with symptoms of mental ill health.

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

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Could it be you? We're looking for that special person with fundraising ideas to grow our volunteering projects

Back in the 90s I was starting my career fresh from postgraduate research, uncertain of what it was I really wanted to do, disillusioned with academe and determined to ‘do something good’. I accidentally found myself in the charity sector and even more accidentally found myself in fundraising and actually was quite good at it.

How things have changed as we breeze into another uncertain year of political and economic upheaval - our sector is under immense pressure and yet it is increasingly seen as a genuine and attractive career prospect and not always that easy to break into.  Which all means finding a good fundraiser, as my old boss used to say, is like finding rocking horse manure!!

So - what brings on this musing so early in the new year about days gone by and changes in the sector? It’s because at TimeBank we are recruiting for a new fundraising and business development post – one that will work directly to, and with, me and have the opportunity to shape the job  as they see fit. It’s a role that could suit an entry level person who I’d be happy to mentor and support or equally someone returning to work after a gap, or someone more senior, developing a portfolio of freelance roles but wanting something stable in the diary.

In essence, we are pretty flexible, we just want the right person – someone happy to think out of the box and be creative one day but trawl through 17 years of files and folders the next researching previous funders, supporting our project team in developing new, fundable, mentoring projects, someone passionate about volunteering and the role it can play in changing lives.

Add into that an element of business development – we want to expand our employee volunteering. We want to show businesses how this can improve teambuilding, leadership skills and make a massive difference in their communities – could you join me in making that pitch to a corporate CEO?

I want someone who wants to work in our sector and sees the difference that being a fundraiser can make – not, as I was thought of back in the day, the necessary but rather grubby team in the corner that asked people for money – but an intricate cog in a finely tuned charity making its way, despite the pressure of the outside world, towards its 20th anniversary of changing people’s lives for the better through volunteering.

If that sounds like a challenge you want to take up then take a look here – or give me a call on 020 3111 0701 and we can talk about how you could be the difference TimeBank needs to step up to the next level.  

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I love these great moments from our Talking Together project!

I was talking to a colleague recently about how it can be hard to write a blog without sounding cheesy and contrived. But because I’m genuinely very passionate about our Talking Together project I love telling stories about the incredible learners who attend our classes. (Just ask my boyfriend who has to put up with being told about every funny or sweet moment!)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been visiting final classes of some of our Talking Together courses. A particularly memorable last class was at Wapping Bangladesh Association. The volunteers Louise and Hannah had arranged for the learners to each say a few words about why they were learning English and what they like about classes. Having visited this class many times, I was really moved by seeing how much their confidence had grown and how much clearer their pronunciation was. “I am attending English course so I can improve my English. I also want to work so it’s important… I enjoy attending English class because my teacher makes the lesson interesting and fun.”

I also had a chance to hear learners from our class at Praxis Community Projects practising their statements for their Rhythm and Rights Human Rights Day celebration.

“I want to live in a world full of love.” “I want to live in a world with no slavery.” “I want to live in a world where there is no war.”

As well as the hard work of our learners, the dedication of our volunteers is impressive. The amount of work they put into something that they are not getting paid for is incredible and I can’t thank them enough.

Recently I’ve also had the chance to teach a few classes myself when volunteers have been unwell or on holiday. Not only is this a great way for me to get a first-hand understanding of the challenges that volunteers face, it’s also fun. From being asked to explain what ‘oh my gosh’ means (they weren’t happy that I didn’t have a definition of ‘gosh’) to being told I am past the age at which one should be married, there is never a dull moment when teaching! There are so many unexpected little things I learn at every class. At one class, we spent time talking about motherhood and despite their broken English, I got a great understanding of what being a mother means to them (alongside some anecdotes about their children which may have put me off starting a family any time soon…)

If you’re interested in volunteering on the project in either London or the West Midlands, don’t hesitate to get in touch on tt@timebank.org.uk or ttlondon@timebank.org.uk. Whilst we may not be taking additional volunteers right now, we hope to be recruiting more in the New Year!

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What a huge amount we've achieved this year - despite such a challenging political and economic climate

Every year I sit down to write my end of year blog and think I’m sure not that much has happened – and then I flick through my diary and realise what a ridiculous amount we have achieved, invariably against the odds in this very challenging and unique political and economic climate.

January began with a new project, Hidden Carers, starting in Birmingham with volunteers running one day workshops to support people who don’t identify themselves as carers. Following the publication of the Casey Review in December we were feeding in to the Government’s response, particularly around our English Language project Talking Together and how that addresses many of the issues raised by the report and helps to integrate those most vulnerable groups through basic functional English Language.

In February we held the first trustees’ away day for a while, which was hugely productive in terms of our longer term strategy and most importantly putting together a succession plan for our outgoing Chair, Lady Andrée Deane Barron. Andrée’s six year tenure was up in July and we were keen to make sure we had the right plan in place for her successor. We persuaded her to remain as an Ambassador - or Time Lady as we prefer to call her! 

The Met Film School approached us in the Spring and asked if their students could make a film about our employee volunteering programme – we were absolutely delighted with the outcome and you can see the film here. We also undertook some logistics to improve the way we work as an organisation, moving away from servers to exclusively online, enabling us to work anywhere and anytime and have full access to all our systems in all our offices in Scotland, Birmingham and London. And we moved to a different space in our London office in the Spring, sharing a room with another charity where we enjoy a bit more space as the team expands – we are lucky to have such accommodating landlords.  

By May we were starting a new iteration of our Talking Together English Language project and had the pleasure of interviewing for new staff in Birmingham – it never ceases to amaze me the quality and skill sets in the voluntary sector and it’s never an easy decision but we are very pleased with our new team.

I’ve continued to volunteer as a mentor – in a professional context supporting a Director of Income Generation and a new Chief Executive – I love doing this and learn as much as I give so this year I decided to reverse the position and signed up for a mentor myself. It’s been a hugely rewarding experience having the opportunity to spend time with someone, entirely independent, talking about my own challenges and longer-term aspirations for TimeBank – so I do truly walk the talk!

In June everyone was thrown by the snap election but not TimeBank - we were the first charity to get our manifesto up just 48 hours after the news, refined for a new look country, wrestling with new challenges as we look to leave Europe. Take a look here - it’s relevant election or not. 

We’ve continued to write bids and work with new funders to develop new projects and have been particularly absorbed with a significant bid to the Big Lottery Scotland for five years of funding for our Shoulder to Shoulder project which this year received funding from ABF the Soldiers’ Charity. We’ve reached Stage Two so hope that we will have good news in the New Year. We’ve decided we are in a position to recruit additional fundraising support to expand this area of our work in January 2018 which we are very excited about – if you are looking for a New Year challenge do take a look

I’ve spent time out and about speaking about volunteering at the Healthwatch England and Employee Engagement conferences and at the launch of Refugees into Sustainable Employment with our partners Renaisi as we started a new mentoring project in London, mentoring refugees to stay in employment. Even in my spare time I’m engaging with the sector and went to see the musical about the Kids Company demise – a curious combination but certainly an interesting way of interpreting a select committee – I confess to being disappointed the next time I was in Parliament that no one randomly burst into song!

One thing I love about TimeBank is that our staff never truly leave us and we were delighted to welcome a new addition to the TimeBank team - baby Emily - and went to visit her and Mum Rachel, a former team member, while fitting in a pub quiz too! Maybe it’s because they have such a fab time when they are working for us – another new team member found herself volunteering in a food and clothing bank in Birmingham on her first day, which is quite an introduction to your new colleagues.

In October we were shortlisted for Charity of the Year at the Charity Times Awards – we scrubbed up rather well for the event but sadly didn’t win – nevertheless we were very proud to have got that far. We also formally said farewell to our outgoing Chair Andrée as Peter Beeby, a trustee for four years, took over the role. We had a lovely dinner all together – I am lucky to have such an engaged and engaging Board.

This year’s Christmas employee volunteering has been truly off the Richter scale – we’ve tripled the number of events we’ve run and are blown away by the commitment of the companies we’ve worked with to make a difference at this time of year. We’ve worked in care homes, food banks, schools and homes supporting families of children in hospital. It really has been truly impactful and often a lot of fun. Certainly the TimeBank team thoroughly enjoyed our own volunteering day at Ronald McDonald House making biscuits and gingerbread houses for the families of sick children.

And so to the future. We’ve started work on upgrading our website and writing our impact report to be launched in 2018 and we’ve recruited new trustees. We are hoping to expand our English Language programme and our Hidden Carers project so things really are looking good coming into the New Year.

In summary, our volunteers have been outstanding this year - their contribution is almost unmeasurable when you read comments like this from one of our learners on Talking Together:  “Thank you for the English lessons. I have been learning English because I want to talk to the doctor. And I want to help my children with their homework. And I want to talk to children’s school teacher. When I go shopping I can speak English well. I need English for everything. I always try speaking English.” Or when you see a mentee from our Shoulder to Shoulder project attend an evaluation launch in Parliament with 100 strangers when previously he wouldn’t leave his house – this is impact; this is changing people’s lives. My job today is very simple: it’s just to say THANK YOU – to our volunteers, to our staff team and to our trustees – thank you for making it possible to change people’s lives and please continue to do so in 2018. Happy Christmas to everyone who reads the TimeBank blog and may you all have a peaceful and successful New Year.

Helen 

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