Recently a member of the TimeBank team came to talk to me about a volunteering opportunity he was considering and asked if I would approve it.
It was slightly odd that he should need my permission as we are a national volunteering charity which gives all our staff five days volunteering leave and pro-actively encourages people to volunteer.
But this was slightly different and I had no idea at the time the broader implications it might have on our organisation.
Richard had seen a tweet from Guide Dogs for the Blind asking if someone wanted to trial a new flexible volunteering opportunity looking after a young guide dog in training. So the volunteering question he asked me was whether he could have a dog in the office.
Now as it happens I’ve had dogs my entire life – the only reason I don’t currently is because my job would mean leaving it home alone for too long - so to say he was pushing at an open door would be an understatement. But what about the others in the office – there were all sorts of things to consider; fear of dogs, religious beliefs, dislike or even the smell! So I said I’d see how people felt about it – which I did.
However it set me thinking. If I’d appointed someone who was blind, and had a dog, to work in our organisation - and we have a very clear equal opportunities policy so it’s quite possible – I wouldn’t be asking the staff if they minded having a dog, I’d be telling them that the new staff member had a guide dog. Of course we would consider all the issues mentioned above and move people around the office to accommodate any issues but it would be a no brainer. We’d just do it. So it was an important lesson for me and our staff to think about the broader implications of what we were doing.
It also underlined a message TimeBank is constantly putting out, that it is vital to provide flexible, impactful volunteering opportunities for people to take up. Guide Dogs want to be able to include people like Richard who work full time and can’t have a dog but who would be excellent temporary custodians of their trainee dogs. By being flexible and looking at how that might work this pilot is win win for the volunteer and the benefiting charity.
So Mason, a black lab/golden retriever cross, arrived for his first day. We’d had guidance from Guide Dogs about not looking at him, or petting him or giving him treats but just ignoring him and letting him be a working dog. After the first few weeks he’s part of the furniture - he gets dropped off after his morning training, goes off for a couple of hours in the afternoon for more training and gets picked up in the evenings. He sits under a desk next to Richard and sometimes now we can go and say hello and give him a pat. But everyone just accepts him.
So I guess what we’ve got out of it, somewhat unexpectedly, is a lesson in diversity, in accepting the ‘unusual’ and being willing to try something new and an awareness of some of the challenges of being blind and the value a dog might have.
All we are really doing is helping Mason learn to be in an office so he can be matched with someone who will work in an office. But somehow he’s changed us for the good and he’s become a regular member of the TimeBank team who we say good morning to. Unlike them he does tend to rock up and go to sleep at his desk – perhaps not the best example for his colleagues!