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

Helping to train a guide dog has made me aware of the challenges faced by blind and partially sighted people

At TimeBank we all have five days’ leave each year to volunteer and we use it in a variety of ways – from acting as a charity trustee to lying in a body bag on Brighton beach! I’m helping to train Digger, a trainee guide dog who is spending time in our office to get used to a work environment. This is my second trainee guide dog, the first was Mason who has gone on to be a Buddy dog for a 10 year old girl who is deaf and blind.

I first heard about Guide Dogs, and a new trial they had started, via Twitter. They were looking for volunteers in the City who could have a guide dog during the day, in an office … I thought there might be some hurdles to cross before this could happen at the TimeBank office, but I also knew that I really wanted to volunteer with dogs. Ever since I was a child I always wanted a pet dog but I had asthma and with working parents, having a dog at home wasn’t very practical. And as an adult I wasn’t able to find any volunteering roles that didn’t require significant, previous experience of handling dogs. So when I saw the tweet from Guide Dogs I knew this was my chance!

I shouldn’t have worried about having a guide dog at the office. Both my CEO, Helen, and the rest of the TimeBank team were very supportive from day one. And of course the training and support from Guide Dogs has been absolutely fantastic. Like last year, having a guide dog in the office is not only a fun and rewarding volunteer experience but also a poignant reminder of how lucky we are to have our mobility.  Digger is a special dog, just like all guide dogs; he is going on to be a wonderful support and companion for someone who runs an events company and his new owner will depend on him to get around London to do business. His work experience at the TimeBank office has prepared Digger for his working life! 

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I will always remember my first weeks of volunteering. I was introduced to someone who works for Guide Dogs and also happens to be blind. During our chat he asked me if I knew anyone who is blind or partially sighted and I had a long think but I couldn’t recall anyone. These moments bring issues to the front of your thoughts - about lack of accessibility, equal opportunities and diversity - that still need to be tackled. Through volunteering, in a small way, I hope that I can show my support.

A big thanks to Andy Gatenby at the Guide Dogs team – Digger and Mason too. 

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I'm helping to bring the diverse communities of Birmingham together

Our Talking Together project recruits and trains volunteers to offer informal, spoken language training to long-term residents with little or no English, most of whom are women from the Bangladeshi, Somali and Pakistani communities. Here, one of our volunteers, Niamh, tells why she got involved ...

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Almost five months ago, after completing a CELTA course and becoming newly qualified as a teacher of English as a second language, I signed up with TimeBank to gain a little more teaching experience and I’ve loved every second of it.

It’s such a wonderful experience meeting a diverse range of women with an eagerness to learn, form new friendships and grow in confidence. I grew up in Birmingham and have the privilege of living in this cultural melting pot of a city. With the Talking Together project I have helped contribute to bringing the many communities of Birmingham together through the shared language of English and hopefully (and more importantly) made a few women’s everyday lives a little less stressful.

Exploring the city with its many sites and attractions as a group is a great way to practice the vital, everyday English we teach and develop the confidence of the men and women who have dedicated themselves to learning with us.

I recently joined Nazia and her Talking Together group at the Golden Hillock on a day trip to the BBC Studios at the Mailbox in Birmingham’s city centre. 

Firstly, we needed to travel by train from Small Heath to Moor Street station. Many of the women in our group had never taken the train and had no idea they could be in the city centre in just a few minutes. The ladies took turns enquiring about times and ticket prices before we hopped on the train feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, a great start to the trip.

At the BBC Studios we were given a grand tour around the building with two friendly guides who gave the group every opportunity to ask questions and practice their English. We were shown the local news studio and were amazed by how it’s made to look so much bigger with the magic of television and extremely expensive cameras. The ladies also got the opportunity to become weathergirls, testing their reading skills on an autocue before heading down to the radio studio to see the local DJs. A lot of the BBC Studios is open to the public and many of the ladies were eager to come back with their families for a day out.

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We strolled to the pavilions for lunch, passing New Street Station where we discussed what other cities they can visit such as London, Liverpool and Manchester where some of the women have family. Once we arrived at the pavilions the ladies ordered their own food and sampled the local cuisine (you can’t beat a plate of pizza and chips).

As I chatted with these lovely ladies about the trip, their families and their interests I could see how something so outwardly everyday as a trip to the city centre could be so important and offer these women such an invaluable opportunity to show off all their hard work as well as enjoy themselves, together.

If you'd like to get involved in Talking Together, take a look here.

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Help to face the days ahead

Spring is in the air and with that comes the better weather. Well, living in Scotland, we are always hopeful this will be the year of lots of sun. It’s also a really good time of year for matching up mentees with mentors as more daylight hours provides opportunities to take part in wide range activities out of doors.

Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine matches Service veterans and family members living in Glasgow and Edinburgh with volunteer mentors who provide face to face support, a couple of times each month, over the course of 3 to 9 months, by setting goals. This helps mentees focus their day, which is a supportive tool as it can be difficult for veterans who have mental health issues to think about the days ahead when faced with anxiety, panic attacks, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mentors are good at breaking down the goals in to small steps, so that mentees feel they are achieving all of the time.  Mentors and mentees are matched  in relation to their interests and hobbies and what they would like to get out of the match. They also meet at various times in the day, whenever suits both, so it's very flexible.

Mentees are supported with a wide range of goals, including: having someone to talk with if they are feeling low, enhancing confidence and self-esteem, help in focusing their day whether they have a lots going on, or would like to enhance their social circle, or taking up  a new interest or hobby. Having someone there, just for them, helps their confidence to grow, especially when they have someone to do activities with.

Stephen, a veteran living in Glasgow has recently been matched with Rita, a TimeBank volunteer mentor. I received a really nice note from Stephen the other day. He said “I have had two great meetups with my mentor Rita, so far and two enjoyable days. We enjoyed walks, going to museums and discussed a wide range of topics including baking, photography and gardening. My mentor is a very knowledgeable person and a very good listener. I just wanted you to know that I am getting a lot from this mentoring programme and look forward to the next meet up.” That made my day.

I’ll be in George Square, Glasgow for Armed Forces Day next month on 27th June, 2015. Do come along to the TimeBank stall for a chat and pick up a flyer to find out more about the project, or how you as a veteran or family member could be supported by a mentor; I’m also recruiting  for volunteer mentors.

You can also call me on 07437 437 867, email ali@timebank.org.uk or find out more here.

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Bostin* Black Country travels

Following on from the amazing success of TimeBank’s Talking Together project we were able to secure additional funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government to expand the English teaching programme across the Midlands, with a particular focus on the Black Country.

This is the area to the north and west of Birmingham which at one time was one of the most industrialised parts of the country. These days it contains some of the most deprived wards in England.

We wanted to explore how we might work with smaller, grassroots organisations – those that are often invisible in the usual profiles of the third sector. We’d already  undertaken a lot of research work across the Midlands, looking ward by ward at English proficiency, ethnicity and other indices of deprivation. We knew where we wanted to work, but now needed to identify appropriate delivery partners.

We soon discovered that even in an age where internet and social media has a deep reach, there are some places it doesn’t get to. Some of the delivery partners we are working with don’t have websites or email addresses. Two do not have any paid staff members at all. So we worked with Dudley Council for Voluntary Service - thanks in particular to Becky Pickin, whose role is to support small, informally constituted groups - to identify potential partners.

After that it was a case of traditional community development work for the TimeBank team – buses, train, visiting housing estates miles from anywhere, going to see people in their homes, scout huts or community centres. Many cups of tea later, we had identified our delivery partners.

However, that was only half of the challenge. We wanted to invest in these small community organisations to build their capacity to grow in future. But we were also acutely aware that in managing public funds there had to be transparency in our arrangements and clear lines of accountability. So where necessary we worked with them to ensure they had simple and straightforward governing documents, bank accounts in the name of the organisation, not an individual, and a clear strategy if their group ceased to function.

So now we have some amazing delivery partners identifying and providing learners for our functional English classes including the Women’s Awareness Association, a Yemeni women’s group meeting in a scout hut in Halesowen; DIYAA, a south Asian women’s group tackling social isolation in Lye and a project supporting Bangladeshi women in Tipton. Over the next few weeks we hope to bring on board partners in Nottingham and Coventry including a Women’s Centre and a project supporting Asian women experiencing mental ill-health.

It’s been a whirlwind ride, but incredibly satisfying to invest time and small amounts of money in organisations which often miss out on bigger funding opportunities. And most importantly, by extending TimeBank’s reach into local communities we will provide the opportunity for many women who would not otherwise get the chance to learn English.

You can see more about our Talking Together project here. 

*Bostin means very good in Black Country dialect. The dialect is a source of pride in the Black Country and is still widely spoken in towns and villages.  It has led to a number of words and sayings, such ‘Ow bin ya?’ for ‘How are you?’ and ‘babby’ for ‘baby’. 

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Happy Christmas volunteering!

Yesterday we did our Christmas Party volunteering and yes I know it was April 30, which is some time after Christmas! The thing was, in December we were busy moving offices in London so I postponed our Christmas ‘do’ and promised staff we’d do it in the New Year.

The trouble is that there is always something going on and it just gets put on the ‘too difficult to do’ list. But we finally set a date.

Last year for our staff away day the Birmingham team came to London so the London team headed  to Birmingham this time. 

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At TimeBank we have volunteered every Christmas for the last three years – we’re a volunteering charity, yes, but actually it’s because it’s more fun and rewarding than a traditional Christmas party and it’s more inclusive for a diverse workforce. We still have the meal and drinks afterwards – but volunteering first makes you feel good about yourself, you’ve made a difference and you have a common achievement to talk to your colleagues about.

We thought others would like to try it too so we put on Christmas volunteering events as part of our employee volunteering offer, though more traditionally through November and December! 

Volunteering takes many forms and with our five days volunteering leave staff tend to do the things that they really care about which are usually skills based. But for a good team building activity that makes sure everyone can be involved we did an environmental challenge at the Ackers Adventure Centre – a charity that provides access to open space and adventurous activities in over 75 acres of diverse landscape in the centre of Birmingham.  

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There really was something for everyone – those with bad backs and one of our pregnant colleagues were on light litter picking duties, others painted benches or cleared  ponds in fetching waders or dug out tyres long buried in an area being redeveloped. It was utterly exhausting but great fun to be mixing with our colleagues from Birmingham and Scotland – to be doing something altogether in our fetching orange T-shirts, occasionally with the added fashion statement of a poncho fending off the April showers, encouraging one another to push that extra bit to dig something out or cut down another bramble!

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Afterwards of course we went for a meal and shared our day over a wonderful vegetarian Indian spread, and for those of us inclined a very cold beer! 

As one of the team said:  “You should cancel Christmas more often Helen – that was a fantastic day.” From  Scrooge to hero in one hit! But there was only one winner, volunteering – simple, it wins every single time – give it a go.

If you’d like to get your company volunteering, take a look at our Spring into Action campaign

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Body bags on Brighton Beach - don't let them drown

On a bright, sunny spring morning last week, I found myself lying in a black plastic body bag on Brighton beach with the tide coming in.  Not the type of volunteering experience I usually take part in! 

At TimeBank all staff have five days’ leave each year for volunteering and I was using some of this to support Amnesty in its efforts to put pressure on the EU to do more to stop the tragic migrant crisis which is taking place in the Mediterranean. 

Over 1,000 people drowned last week alone (800 on just one capsized boat) as they made the perilous journey in search of a better life.

After a health and safety briefing, the first task of the day was to help lay out 200 body bags, some of which we filled with balloons.  The bags were laid in rows as close to the shoreline as possible.  We were then asked by Amnesty staff if we would be happy to lie in the remaining bags for 20 minutes or so whilst national and local press took photographs and did interviews.  The bags would cover our entire bodies and faces but would only be partially zipped up to waist height for safety. About 30 to 40 of us willingly volunteered.

It was slightly surreal to lie anonymously in the dark, under pungent plastic edged with brightness, with the gentle sea breeze rustling the bags, listening to voices all around us. Some time in, I could hear people talking to “Caroline”, deferentially giving her instructions and asking her to look this way and that.  Her responses sounded very close so I can only assume that local Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas was standing right by my head at one point!  I also heard someone nearby saying, in a low hushed voice, that the problem with the word “migrant” is that is has been used so negatively by so many people that it dehumanises the situation.  The ebb and flow of photographers went on longer than expected and some were very late in arriving!  But Amnesty staff were extremely attentive and concerned, regularly making sure we were all OK and offering us plenty of water to drink.

As I lay there very still in the darkness, I thought about all sorts of things … of the poor people who drowned, especially all the children on that one boat alone; of how invisible I felt at that moment to those around me which is what some migrants must feel all the time; how important it was for the EU to allocate more resources to save as many lives as possible and stop these tragedies from happening time and again.  

Most of all, I thought about how deeply I feel about this issue from my time as a volunteer mentor on TimeBank’s TimeTogether project  way back in 2004 and  my more recent role helping TimeBank to secure funding for our Talking Together project.  Both projects have helped many migrants and refugees to improve their English and settle into a new life in the UK. 

For me, the “dehumanising” comment was the most memorable aspect of the day.  I think of it often days later. If my world was broken by poverty, war, repression or violence, I hope I too would have the courage to risk everything to make that crossing to give me and my family a life free from fear and hunger.

(Finally, if you’re wondering which bag I’m in… it’s middle row, third one in….)

 

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Calling all volunteers: Talking Together has started in London and we need YOU!

Following the success of Talking Together in Birmingham and Leicester we are delighted to be able to extend it to London! Talking Together is our English Language training project for long-term residents who feel cut off from British life because they can’t speak the language.

TimeBank has received funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government to extend Talking Together and launch new projects in  eight London boroughs: Barking and Dagenham, Brent, Greenwich, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Lewisham, Southwark and Wandsworth.

We will be working with local organisations and community groups to deliver the programme, and we’re still recruiting partners, so if you’re a community group working with long-term UK residents who have little or no knowledge of English, get in touch at TTLondon@timebank.org.uk

The classes are informal and locally based, covering basic skills such as taking public transport or going to the doctor. This kind of practical input really can help transform someone's life, open doors and contribute to community integration. It’s truly a life changing programme - bringing the ability to talk to a doctor, a child’s teacher, or even the bus driver. And the change is caused by people like you and I, donating a few hours to volunteer.

Not only does volunteering for Talking Together make a massive difference for the learners, the volunteers also benefit. It’s a brilliant volunteering opportunity for people studying to become a teacher or wanting to improve their CV.  No previous experience is necessary and we offer you excellent, intensive training, individual support, out of pocket expenses, a fantastic experience and the satisfaction of genuinely making a difference.

One of our volunteers, Amy, wrote a blog on her rewarding experience of volunteering on Talking Together in Birmingham.

So if you are looking for a rewarding volunteering experience, have a couple of hours to spare each week for the next six weeks and have good language skills, look no further! See here for more information about the project and if you have any questions get in touch with us at TTLondon@timebank.org.uk or phone us on 0203 111 0730. If you’re ready to apply, just follow this link to download the application form.

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Our Hidden Carers pilot project will explore the needs of carers who have limited English

Our new Hidden Carers pilot project in Birmingham is exploring how to meet the needs of carers who have limited English as well as insufficient access to carer support.

The pilot will test a short programme of workshops which will cover the language needed for a carer role as well as information on carers' rights and how to engage with carer services.

We are looking for trained ESOL tutors to help deliver the programme - if you're interested, contact Odilia Mabrouk at odilia@timebank.org.uk or call 0121 236 2531. The deadline is April 24 and there will be a paid induction day on May 12.

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