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

Making sure ex-Service men, women and families get the support they need

Before TimeBank I worked in youth volunteering and the one thing I remember clearly about those times is the number of networking meetings and events I was invited to – far too many to attend them all.

Fast forward a few years to when I started here on the Shoulder to Shoulder project and the situation couldn’t be more different. In the early days I felt maybe I just wasn’t “in with the right crowd” or maybe people didn’t know about us so we just weren’t invited.  

But months ticked by and still no sign of an opportunity to sit in a room in Birmingham with all the other organisations involved in working with veterans and families and network. So it was clearly time to set to and organise one myself!

As a part-time worker it is hard to meet with all the necessary key players in the sector and maintain that relationship – it can be a full-time job in itself. I am passionate that our relatively small project, compared to the big boys like Combat Stress and Royal British Legion, is remembered.  

I want agencies to think of us when a veteran or family needs support. A good number of agencies attend our monthly Veterans Drop-In but I believe that time is to support those ex-Service men, women and families who come along and to keep them informed. It should be about putting the veterans or family members first so they feel supported when they walk back out the door.

So I wanted to ensure Shoulder to Shoulder was on the map in and around Birmingham. We also wanted to hear about what everyone else was doing so we knew what services to signpost our veterans and families to.  We wanted to offer a one stop shop to veterans and their families. As a result of this the Veteran and Families Roadshow was created.

We organised the Roadshow in March and had such a positive response from organisations wanting to attend and make sure veterans and their families knew about the services they could offer.  All the information stands were snapped up by military and support charities – we covered housing, welfare, volunteering, employment, peer support and general mental health support services. The organisations included Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust, Combat Stress, Help for Heroes, Royal British Legion, The Poppy Factory and SIFA Fireside to name a few.

Helen Walker, TimeBank Chief Executive, opened the event, highlighting our passion for partnership working:  “Today is really about us working together with a common aim to support our Service men, women and their families in the best possible way we can by recognising one another’s strengths and ensuring that we cross refer and maximise support to our beneficiaries.”

We received a great deal of positive comments from organisations that attended including:

“We were able to network with new and existing partners, and met potential new clients who we can support with employment needs,” Poppy Factory

“Thanks ever so much for having Rewards for Forces yesterday - it really was a great event! I found it so useful to be able to speak to different organisations that I had never heard of previously. I really benefited from networking with the charities to see how we can help promote them to our members so it definitely was a success!” Reward for Forces

I certainly feel that despite being a relatively small project we can throw a decent punch! I hope we are on the map and people across the city and surrounding areas are able to find out about us through various avenues but essentially through the other fantastic support organisations out there. 

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Kissing frogs in Parliament

Last week we launched our Carers Together evaluation report. At TimeBank we believe passionately in the importance of sharing learning – not just of things that have worked but things that haven’t – we believe that stakeholders, funders and partners should have sight of that learning so as not to reinvent square wheels that don’t work as well as replicating things that do. 

The last time I spoke at Parliament I was upstaged by a mouse taking a turn around the audience. Now TimeBank supporters are hardy people but mice just have a way of freaking people out! So this time we moved venue just along the river to Millbank in the hope that the mice would stay away and the focus would remain firmly on the speakers!

We were hosted by long term TimeBank friend Sir Kevin Barron MP who opened proceedings by talking about his passion and belief in volunteering. When you share a platform with three others it’s important to keep things short and sweet particularly since people really wanted to hear about the outcomes of the report from the evaluator – so my focus was on the benefits of partnership. 

For Carers Together we partnered with Carers UK, a national membership body supporting carers. As I said in my speech, just like in real life you have to kiss an awful lot of frogs before you find the right partner!

Partnership in the voluntary sector is more important now than ever before and whilst we pride ourselves on it, in reality it’s hard to find a partner who matches your ethos and values and of course who is as willing to work on the relationship as you are.

Carers UK and TimeBank was a match made in heaven – we had relationships from Chief Executive through to director and operational level so we always all knew where we stood. We knew we brought to the party our skills in mentoring and volunteering, training and matching relationships and they brought their extensive membership and knowledge of carers.

Heléna Herklots, Carers UK CEO, spoke of the importance of the learning that they had gained from the project. The fact that she had spent the day at their very first volunteer forum spoke volumes.  

But the reason people had come was to hear Matthew Terry from Cloud Chamber who we had commissioned to do the evaluation.  He said this had shown that online mentoring in particular could be useful in allowing carers to express their anger, feelings and raw emotions.  It offered them the flexibility to send messages at a time convenient to them, or when they felt particularly overwhelmed by their caring responsibilities. And some carers said they were more willing to discuss personal and emotional issues online that they would have found difficult or embarrassing to raise in face-to-face conversations.

Online mentoring also meant that TimeBank was able to recruit a wide pool of volunteer mentors from across the country instead of a small geographical area, enabling careful matching of mentors to carers’ specific needs.

It also enabled the project to triple the number of people it was able to support, because each volunteer mentor could respond to more than one carer online.

The learning from this project has already been integrated into our existing projects and bids to support new socially disadvantaged groups that might benefit from it. And the questions to the panel after the speeches showed a real interest in the detail of the project and the extent of carer breakdown it sought to reduce. Like all these events the real discussion got underway after the formalities were done, over a drink and I am confident that we truly did share our learning far and wide. And this time the mice stayed away!

Take a look at the full evaluation report here.

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We're proud and humbled that people like Janet want to volunteer with us

As I am sure you know if you are reading this blog, TimeBank is a national volunteering charity and as such all our projects have volunteers involved in their delivery. As Chief Executive it’s often all too easy to allow yourself to get one step removed and not see the work that’s going on at the ‘coalface’ of the charity. I make a point of trying to go out to our projects when I can, attending social events for volunteers and making sure I’m there to thank them whenever possible.

This week I was in Birmingham to welcome everyone to our Veterans and Families Roadshow. I was delighted to be there to promote partnership amongst a wide range of organisations working with ex-service men, women and their families in the West Midlands – as I used to work for a military charity it’s a subject close to my heart and I believe passionately in the work we do to complement the services provided by others.

At this event one of our volunteers, Janet (pictured here on the right) was there helping to promote our Shoulder to Shoulder Families project and I had the opportunity to chat with her. She’s been a volunteer mentor for TimeBank for 18 months and she told me a bit about her work. What came over was an overriding pride in the difference she was able to make supporting a veteran’s family. She told me how her friends questioned why she would do something for free. She explained that it was something that had shown her qualities she didn’t know she had:  listening skills, empathising, empowering others to speak to her and off-load and it gave her a real sense of pride.

One thing that really made an impact was when she described how she felt when she was selected as a mentor. She said: “The co-ordinator said at training that not everyone got through to the final stage of being a mentor as not everyone is suited to it, but that they’d signpost you to other opportunities if that was the case. When I got the call to say I had been selected I was so proud and excited that I had been chosen and that I was good enough to make a difference on such an important programme.”

It is profoundly humbling to hear that someone clearly so passionate, so committed and so caring could imagine that she wouldn’t be good enough to mentor on our project. But it also shows the importance of being open and honest with volunteers throughout training.

This isn’t an easy opportunity, indeed it’s often a (literally) thankless task. There will be challenges that you need to be prepared for, emotional detachment where possible and striving not to allow mentees to become dependent upon you. But if it works it is incredibly impactful and we are so, so reliant on people like Janet to give their time freely and generously to support those more vulnerable than themselves.

I came away from this successful event once again overwhelmed by the amazing people who not only work for TimeBank (and a lot of work had gone into the organisation and promotion of it by the co-ordinator) but by those who volunteer for us too. It reminds me why I do the job that I do and why I am incredibly honoured to be the Chief Executive of TimeBank. I can’t stress enough the importance of CEOs taking time out from behind our desks to see what’s happening at the grassroots delivery level. When times are hard and funding difficult to come by, it gives you that extra push to go out and make things happen regardless. 

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Duchess of Cambridge calls for child mental health to be given the focus it deserves

In an interview with The Times the Duchess of Cambridge has urged that more attention be given to the issue of child mental health. This comes after yesterday’s release of data on well-being by the Office of National Statistics which showed  that anxiety and depression affect nearly 21% of 16-24 year olds.

We welcome the Duchess’s focus on child mental health, an area we believe has received way too little attention. Although mental health issues have become less taboo for adults, there is still much stigma around child mental health and this is something we need to change, not only for the sake of our children but also for the sake of adults who could have lived a less troubled life if they had received the help they deserved from a young age.

The Duchess said: “I feel strongly that young people and parents need to know that they can ask for help. Just as with physical health, we need to act early to provide support when a child is faced with emotional difficulties.” 

Here at TimeBank one of our volunteer mentoring programmes, The Switch, focuses on supporting young people making the difficult transition  from child and adolescent mental health care to adult mental health services or indeed out of support altogether. This is a time of great vulnerability for young people and having a mentor independent of family or professional services can make a huge difference to their emotional well-being, helping  them to make the move  effectively and with confidence.

The mentoring relationship helps them through one of the most difficult times of their lives, and provides them with stability in an environment of great change – it’s a small investment that makes a massive difference.

We’re glad that child mental health is finally getting some of the coverage it deserves and are looking forward to it receiving the “focus it requires”! 

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Now I can speak English at home with the kids

Imagine: your child is sick, you need to call the doctor, but you can’t speak English, you can’t understand or navigate the switchboard options; if someone answers what can you say?

You want to learn, but there are no classes locally, you have no money for private lessons, you don’t feel confident travelling to college classes and don’t meet the entry requirements for them anyway!

Not knowing the language can isolate a person, physically within the small area in which they live and feel safe and emotionally, making them dependant on others to do things that most people take for granted. It means that some things you’d prefer to keep private, like health conditions, have to be shared with others.

Talking Together works to change the life chances of people without much or any English who are living within our communities. The programme provides free spoken language training and mentoring support to learners predominantly from the Bangladeshi, Somali and Pakistani communities.  However, in total, we’ve recruited learners from 55 different countries of origin. 

Research shows that it’s women who make up the largest proportion of non-English speakers. They want to be able to play a greater role in their communities and in British life. One of our learners, Naseem, says: “Now I can speak English at home with my kids and can even make an appointment with doctor and visit him by myself and for that I do not need anyone’s help any more.”

Fareeda says: “Now if I go out I can talk to shopkeeper and buy what I want to. Now even for hospitals I can understand appointments and their schedules.”

When one of our volunteers, Amy, took a group of learners on a trip to the city centre, she found that many had never been on a train before. In her blog she describes the difference this five minute journey made to their confidence. What had previously been unknown became known - from buying a ticket, watching the arrivals board, getting on the train, watching stations go by and recognising the right one, getting off, walking through a ticket barrier … so many tiny details, all previously unfamiliar.

In just 12 months, Talking Together has trained 146 volunteer language trainers and classroom assistants and delivered 1,440 individual classroom sessions involving more than 1,200 learners.

One of the reasons it has been so successful is that classes are organised locally and hosted by trusted community organisations; learners feel secure and so able to attend. The notion of ‘hard to reach’ is transformed through simply understanding what our learners need and partnering with the right agencies to ensure things happen.

In that regard, we work with a range of community partners to deliver the project. One of them is the Shama Women’s Centre in Leicester, where co-ordinator Khudeja Amer-Sharif describes the language training as very practical and family oriented"It is about how to communicate with your GP, catch a bus - it is very practical. By learning the language, it impacts not only that individual but their family.”

We’re delighted that the project has now been boosted with further funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government!  This will enable us to expand Talking Together across the Midlands and launch new projects in London, so watch this space!           

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Mental health is a priority for TimeBank - it's good to see the Government has caught up!

One particular piece of Budget news caught my eye this week - the Government’s commitment to boost spending on mental health care, particularly for veterans and children.  

Both of these are key areas that TimeBank has been working on for some time – so it’s good to see that the Government has finally caught up!!

The Switch is our mentoring project for young people transitioning between child and adolescent mental health care into adult mental health care or indeed out of support altogether.  For the young person it’s a time of great vulnerability and having a mentor independent of family or professional services can help them to make this transition effectively and with confidence – it’s a small investment that makes a massive difference.

Shoulder to Shoulder is our veterans mentoring project that we’ve run in London, Birmingham and now in Scotland. Again supporting vulnerable veterans through the difficult transition into civilian life made harder by the mental health issues some of them have, caused by their service to our country.

Neither of these is an easy volunteering opportunity – mentees may often not turn up to meetings because their condition has worsened or they’ve forgotten or can’t make themselves leave the house. They may not do the things they say they will between meetings. Our veterans may be challenging, angry young men and women who are unlikely to say thank you to anyone, even their mentor. This is a volunteering opportunity that requires patience, goodwill, and recognising what seem like baby steps are actually giant leaps forward.  But this is a volunteering opportunity that literally can save lives.

I hope that the Government will acknowledge the role projects like these play in supporting the most vulnerable in our society and that funding something proven and helping to expand it geographically is just as valuable, if not more so, than a new, innovative but unproven initiative.

If you want to know what TimeBank thinks the new Government should be prioritising – check out our manifesto and sign up to it here

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My son is smiling for the first time in months

It’s a bright and sunny day in London and I’m on my way to meet Michael and Dan at a café in Angel.

Mike and Dan have only been matched for a month and a half as part of our volunteer mentoring project The Switch, but the relationship has gone so well that we received this message from Mike’s mum a couple of days ago:

“I just wanted to say from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much! My son is smiling for the first time in months. I now feel positive he will get better.”

The message was so nice that I wanted to hear more from Dan and Mike. They were happy to meet me for a chat, so I’m tagging along to one of their meetings.  At the café I meet two young men sitting outside enjoying the sunshine.  Dan has come straight from the office and is on his lunch break, and Mike has ventured out to enjoy the weather. They have decided to divide their time together so that they meet several times a month rather than a couple of hours in a row, and are therefore used to meeting in Dan’s lunch break.  Dan laughs and says this is to avoid Mike getting “too bored of his company”. Mike smiles and they say they’re venturing out this weekend on a long session, so they’ll see what they prefer.  So far, a mix seems to be working well.

Before being matched, Mike didn’t leave the house much and sorely missed having someone to discuss football with. Throughout the meeting football banter is highly present, with Mike an ardent Arsenal fan and Dan Leicester; they’re not in competition for the league title, but enjoy discussing games and players. “Luckily I don’t support Tottenham or Chelsea,” jokes Dan.   Mike laughs and says the mentoring relationship might have been different if he did.

I quietly applaud the excellent matching skills of Rachel, the project co-ordinator, while picturing Mike matched with a hard core Tottenham fan and the heated discussions that could follow. Mike is a goalie and Dan has never given up on his dream to become a Leicester player so the cards were ripe for a good mentoring relationship. They are going to play football one of these days and I think it’s going to be a good match.

Mike is a bit shy, but when asked what he has enjoyed the most he’s a burst of energy and answers “I enjoy every session. It’s brilliant!”  So far they’ve met at different coffee shops and gone for lunch in the West End. Their meetings have been loosely planned and consisted of wandering around London talking, but they admit there's also been a lot of coffee. “I’ve never had so much!”  laughs Dan.  

At their first meeting they sat down and created a list of stuff they wanted to do, with researching colleges, playing golf, going to sports museums, visiting the Emirates stadium and playing football top the list. They also want to go fishing one day and I hope they’re not going to end up catching anything from the Thames. If they do, they assured me they won’t attempt to eat it.

Mike and Dan first met in January. At the match meeting Rachel and Mike’s mother stayed for 30 minutes before getting tired of hearing about football and left Mike and Dan.  It was ‘love at first goal’ and it’s continued to go swimmingly.  

I’m curious as to what the mentoring relationship has meant for them so far and if they’ve experienced any changes. I turn to Mike; he smiles and with the same energetic enthusiasm says his time with Dan has really changed him for the better. “Although it’s been short, it’s given me more confidence and self-belief”.  Mike is also happy that he’s out of the house more:  “I’ve got to see things I haven’t seen before, go out more and have someone to talk to.” 

Dan says he’s really enjoyed it too and says: “Mike is up for doing everything, so I’ve mentioned a couple of things that I think sound interesting, and that’s what we’re doing. It is great fun; I get to do and see things I’ve wanted to do for years, but never made time for!” 

I leave the boys to discuss this weekend’s activities – happy to have been a part of their mentoring relationship for a day.

This is why I love working for The Switch. It’s truly a life changing programme and the change is caused by people like you and I, donating a few hours every month just to be there for someone.  Seeing how great they are together has been really inspiring and has made me want to be mentor.  Let’s see what the future holds shall we. For now, I’m happy to be a small part of Dan and Mike’s journey together and I can’t wait to hear what they get up to next!   

If you'd like to get invoved in The Switch, we'd love to hear from you! Take a look here

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How City workers are supporting young care leavers

City Opportunities Mentoring is a TimeBank project matching care leavers with City workers to support them with tasks such as writing job applications, practising interview skills, networking, job shadowing or gaining work experience.

The project started in September 2013, successfully matching 24 City workers to 24 young people and we’re now relaunching it for a further year thanks to funding from the City of London Corporation and Team London.

One current mentoring relationship is between Victor, a Project Management student at London SouthBank University and Chris, an information security consultant working near Liverpool Street.

Victor took up the offer of mentoring after attending a five day work skills programme at London SouthBank University.

That programme provided him with a taste of City life and he decided he wanted help from a mentor to help him find work on graduating. Chris had gained both mentoring and leadership skills through his current and previous jobs and felt that he would be able to use these to offer a young person guidance and support with their career.

Victor and Chris have been matched for several months now and are both enjoying the mentoring experience. They have already undertaken a number of positive activities including working jointly on job applications and CVs, and now plan to focus on interview techniques and confidence building in the next few months.

Chris says ‘mentoring is a rewarding experience and it is a privilege to be able to help someone benefit from some of the many opportunities that the City provides but that can often be quite difficult to break into.’

Victor says: ‘The support and help received from Chris has been remarkable. Most importantly I have gained invaluable knowledge, encouragement and guidance. I am glad to say I have benefited greatly from this programme.’

If you would be interested in becoming a mentor with us or would like to refer someone to the project,  I would love to hear from you! Please contact me at  or on 020 3111 0730. 

And if you'd like to know more about City Opportunities Mentoring, take a look here.

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