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

Getting help in an emergency if you don't speak the language ...

Celia volunteers on our Talking Together project, teaching basic English to women who can't speak the language. She describes the challenge of getting help when there's an emergency.

‘When I first arrived here, I called 999 practically every day – until they told me to stop!’ said one of my students.  My class is all female, a mix of Turkish and Somali ladies with school-age children who have all been here a few years.  Our topic this week is emergency services and we’ve been doing role-play. I quickly realise that there’s a lot more to it than simply learning essential vocabulary and practising a script to ask for help from the emergency services operator.  

All the students found it very challenging to describe common emergency situations. In real life, fear scrambles your brain and affects your ability to describe what’s happening, especially in a foreign language.  There are linguistic and cultural subtleties, which are hard to clarify but important to understand. For example, in the case of an accident, the difference between ‘hitting your head’ and a ‘headache’, how to describe a personal attack or to explain your location if you’re involved in an emergency outside the home.

It reminded me of an experience I had many years ago when I first went to live in a wild and woolly place in the Middle East. Someone broke into our house at night.  In a blind panic, I ran to the nearest neighbouring house with no idea how I would be able to explain the situation with my very limited Arabic.  The best I could manage was ‘bad man in my house, please come’. Fortunately, they did come and chased the intruder away – with guns!

Another student tells me how she had to call the emergency services when she went to visit a heavily pregnant friend.  Arriving at the house, she found her friend in advanced labour.  The ambulance soon arrived and the baby was delivered safely at home. All’s well that ends well. It transpired later that her friend had never wanted to have her baby in hospital anyway and might not have called 999 if left to her own devices.

On reflection, I concluded that this class was about far more than language and that we had only scratched the surface in terms of exploring cultural perceptions of when and why they would call emergency services. There is much of importance to talk about. Domestic violence, depression and pregnancy problems were issues raised by my students.   

A basic English class may not be the right forum for such potentially controversial discussion but these issues came up. I note that currently the healthcare module only deals with physical health problems.  Perhaps it should include some mental health vocabulary too.

If you'd like to know more about our Talking Together project, take a look here

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Refugees welcome?

Today (April 25) the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees published the report 'Refugees Welcome?'. The group, consisting of MPs such as Caroline Lucas and Lord Alf Dubs, examined the experiences of refugees in the UK, with a specific emphasis on their experiences after gaining refugee status. The report highlighted the many individuals, communities and projects working hard to integrate and support refugees. However it also demonstrated the barriers refugees face.

The report found evidence of a two-tier system. When entering the UK refugees either go through the asylum process, having arrived in the UK and submitted an application or they will have been brought to the UK directly from another country through one of the Government-led resettlement schemes. Refugees arriving through the resettlement route are provided with support to find services, employment and accommodation. However, for those who have gone through the asylum system, there is no support, and they have to rely on local services that vary from location to location. One of these services is TimeBank’s innovative mentoring project Time Together operating across the West Midlands.

Working together with different referral partners, such as refugee and migrant centres, LGBT centres and faith-based and non-faith based organisations, we recruit a diverse range of people who have been or are going through the asylum process, who we then match to a volunteer. The volunteer then meets with their beneficiary for five hours a month, over a six month period. This has the aim of increasing wellbeing, reducing isolation and helping the individual to settle into UK life.

We’re only seven months into our project, but we are already seeing successes. One beneficiary is hoping to access a barbering course in a year’s time, so his mentor is assisting with improving his English language skills; one mentor is supporting an individual to find local voluntary work to utilise his skills and knowledge of ICT, whilst another beneficiary with the help of his mentor has just become a member of the local library which has led to him finding out about an English conversation class. This goes to show the impact that local volunteers are having on the lives of refugees, and we at TimeBank strongly agree with one of the report’s many recommendations that includes furthering support to individuals who have recently been given refugee status.

For more information on the Time Together project, take a look here or email

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My extraordinary journey as a volunteer English teacher

Shahin Hussain is a volunteer on our Talking Together project in Birmingham, helping to deliver English language classes in the local community. Here's her powerful blog about the impact the project is having, both on learners and the volunteers who take part:

My journey with TimeBank has been extraordinary as a volunteer teacher trainer.  You may well be thinking, well they all say that, but in fact it’s the truth. From one community centre to the next and having this opportunity to get to teach but also to integrate with different communities who have gone through many difficult stages in life and understanding their needs, respecting and appreciating their culture makes a huge and tremendous difference.

From the start I taught a range of communities - all women from different places such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Pakistan, Arabia, Yemen and Bangladesh - who all committed to learn English. The main purpose of their learning was to be able to communicate within the society where they reside by doing simple things such as making appointments, being able to say what they need in a supermarket and much more.

Although the main focus of the Talking Together programme is Bangladeshi, Somali and Pakistani women, I also taught Romanian women, who in today’s society still feel isolated and are segregated from many parts of the community. There were a lot of challenges that I had to face such as bringing the class together and physically getting them to stay for the two hour sessions and gaining their trust so that they believed that I was really there to help them. My biggest challenge: trust!

These women had a sense of embarrassment and low self-esteem because of their lack of education and felt uncomfortable attending a class which they felt they might not understand.  However, it soon began to turn into a positive and happy learning environment in which the women began to participate much more often and it was clear to me that they became very comfortable and began to enjoy the lessons. From the very first day to the last lesson, the women made a huge improvement and felt that the classes had become a stepping stone to look at life more positively and in an optimistic way.

This whole volunteering experience has given me an insight into what teaching can really accomplish, for example, the simplest things such as what ‘learning the alphabet’ can do, until you take the plunge and find those shining stars smiling at you. From the moment the students enter the classroom, you can see their enthusiasm, commitment and their desperate eagerness to learn and achieve. These women wanted not only to communicate with the outside world but also to work, find employment and most importantly to improve and progress in their lives. This is what I feel teaching can achieve, it can make a change.

As for TimeBank as an organisation, I truly believe it really makes a difference to those in need just like it has mine and those who strongly improved with its help.  TimeBank is driven to deliver and from what I have experienced it certainly has.

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


Our Journey

Not knowing where to go,

What to do,

TimeBank was like an open ocean,

Showering opportunities and more,

It’s hard to believe what we’ve all achieved,

The obstacles we have overcome,

To reach upmost assertion,

Assertion that education could outreach and bring forth,

Capability and a fresh stance to learn.

We tried and we attained,

We believed and we became,

We can now proclaim the Art of Education!

Thank You TimeBank.

                                                                                                         Shahin Hussain

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I've been able to help someone who gave so much to our country ...

We’re delighted to have been awarded a grant of £50,000 from ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, to support Scottish soldiers who are struggling to adjust to civilian life and reduce their risk of social and economic isolation. Here’s how our Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine project helps:

Michael writes:With a few hours to spare each week I decided to volunteer with Shoulder to Shoulder and help support a veteran.  The induction training provided me with a good overview about Shoulder to Shoulder and the new role that I had volunteered for.  I met up with my mentee Robert and the project co-ordinator Ali to see if we might be a good match and want to meet up regularly. 

The mentoring process was helpful to provide a structure for the meetings and give initial direction, which is important in the early days when new to the project.  Robert and I met every few weeks, usually at one of the local cafes and we would spend an hour or more together, talking over his week, the activities that he had been involved in and things that had been going well and not so well. 

Completing the Shoulder to Shoulder Mentoring Action Plan was helpful as it kept us both focused on areas that Robert wanted to work on, by clearly setting out his goals, the stops that he could take to achieve them and the possible people and resources that might help him to achieve them.  An important and interesting part of the mentoring relationship is the Shoulder to Shoulder Star Assessment which was completed by us both every few months and helped Robert to see the areas in which he had achieved. Over the year that Robert and I met we completed a range of goals and could see the gradual and consistent changes that were taking place by completing the Shoulder to Shoulder Star Assessment. 

It was very rewarding to gradually get to know Robert and share in the developments that were taking place in his life and overtime I learned about some of the situations that contributed to his developing PTSD when in the forces.  Through Shoulder to Shoulder I have been able to make a small contribution in helping someone who gave lots to our country and is now enjoying a good life.  I enjoyed being a volunteer and hope to continue in the role in the future.

Robert, in his early thirties, was in the army for four years, including Iraq, and came out in 2007. The transition was difficult, particularly thinking about where to settle down, and he had issues with anxiety. He was keen to get into volunteering, further study and then employment, however being anxious meant this was difficult as it meant being in crowds. His mentor helped by being someone he could talk through his issues with and they often went walking together to keep fit.

Each time they met Robert felt less anxious and they looked at ways to help combat this. Robert liked walking and took part in organised walks in Scotland and then with a physical activity group where he took the lead and enjoyed encouraging others to take exercise. This gave him the confidence to think about getting back into work. He updated his CV and volunteered for the Duke of Edinburgh Scheme, helping to train Army Cadets. Robert also moved out of veterans’ accommodation to independent living. He is doing really well and was delighted to be successful in a job interview that enabled him to stay on as an employee working with the Army cadets.

If you’d like to know more about Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine, take a look here

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Helping to highlight the important contribution that immigrants make

Recently volunteers and staff from our Birmingham projects Talking Together, Time Together and Hidden Carers set up a TimeBank stall at the One Day Without Us event. 

It was hosted by HOPE not Hate community organisers at the Ort Gallery and Café in Moseley, as part of a national campaign that highlights the important contributions that immigrants, both economic and those fleeing from war, make to our economy and diverse social tapestry. 

We were treated to art exhibitions by Syrian survivors, installations of traditional clothing and a demonstration of how to use a textile loom in the old way. The Afghan Association provided delicious food and The Real Junk Food Project supplied vegan food, all on a pay what you feel basis. 

We were there to talk about all the TimeBank volunteering projects running across Birmingham and the West Midlands, recruit potential volunteers and spark the interest of learners, carers and those who could benefit from our projects.  Seven volunteers came and supported the event and it was wonderful to see their enthusiasm and dedication and how passionately they talked to members of the public about TimeBank and the projects they are involved with. 

It was my first meeting with some of the volunteers and I truly felt like a part of something big.  This was also my first community event representing TimeBank and I can honestly say it was a joy meeting so many new people and getting to know our fabulous volunteers whilst raising TimeBank’s profile at a grassroots level.

Later in the evening there were several performances from across the globe.  There was an African gentleman playing the Kora known as the African Harp and singing traditional Mandinka songs. This was an absolute treat to hear and see played.  I thought the sound was a cross between a harp and a cello.  It was a great way to end this heart warming event.

Siân is project co-ordinator of our new project in Birmingham, Hidden Carers, that supports carers who may not realise they are care givers and and need to improve their confidence and skills in English to access carer support. We are now recruiting volunteers to run a series of workshops to explain what services are available. If you'd like to know more, take a look here.  

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Could it be you? We are seeking a new Chair with passion, commitment and drive

I’ve worked very closely with Chairs before (the people that head up meetings, not the things you sit on).  Previously my closest working relationships were at London 2012, with Lord Seb Coe and Lord Charles Allen, when the fizz was all about the ambition and the excitement of the Games … but I’m saving the best stories about that time for my autobiography (!)

Working with Lady Andrée Deane Barron at TimeBank has been an altogether different experience.  Andrée has been the Chair of the first charity where I have sat on the Trustee Board and whether she knows it or not, she has been a mentor and a role model.  This relationship has been about the nuts and bolts of developing, strengthening and supporting a small charity which successfully punches well above its weight.  She has steered TimeBank through some pretty daunting times and done so with grace, calmness, wisdom and in a manner that inspired her Board to all pull in the same direction.

She has also built a trusting and mutually respectful relationship with the Chief Executive – if you read any book or ‘Dummies Guide to being on a Board’ it’ll tell you the CEO/Chair relationship is key to success and like any relationship in life is one that needs time, investment, challenge and compromise.

Unfortunately for TimeBank, Andrée is stepping down in July.  Her tenure is up, though we’re refusing to let her totally go and will be making her an honorary TimeBank ambassador . . . a Time Lady if you please (as long as the BBC don’t sue us for infringement.)

Therefore, we need a new Andrée.  The small but impactful, effective and dynamic charity that is TimeBank is seeking a new Chair with the same passion, commitment and drive that Andrée has, to take it into the future.  Is that you?  Would you like the opportunity to lead a Board of committed individuals who are as passionate about this charity as they are about their day jobs?  Then we’d love to hear from you. 

The new Chair of TimeBank needs to be someone who has a rich understanding of volunteering and the difference it can make to individuals and communities.  TimeBank is supported by a wider network of stakeholders and partners so you also need to be a brilliant communicator, a credible figure and an excellent networker.  You also need to be able steer a meeting – the dedication of the Trustees equals passion and sometimes the discussion needs to be kept on track.

BTW, if you think that from this that I only work with ‘titled’ ladies and gentlemen you’re wrong.  We’re a welcoming and inclusive bunch at TimeBank and are looking forward to receiving applications from a really wide range of people …

Please note this vacancy has now closed.

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Ever thought about how you could support a recently arrived refugee in your community?

The subject of new arrivals has been in the press recently in both a negative and positive light, but our new Time Together project in the West Midlands gives volunteers the chance to dig beneath the stereotypes, to find out about the issues affecting refugees and asylum seekers in their local area, and offer support.  We do through this mentoring.

Mentoring is when a volunteer uses their own skills and knowledge to support another individual to reach a goal - and TimeBank has 17 years’ experience of mentoring! Time Together works with refugees and asylum seekers and we have found that support is generally needed around issues about accommodation, healthcare and access to education.

Once volunteers have been selected, and trained as a mentor, they can be matched to either a refugee or asylum seeker. The pair meet for about five hours a month, and during their time together can go for a coffee, a walk in the park or possibly seek out some expert advice on a pressing issue. The relationship lasts for about six months, and after that volunteers can stay in touch or be matched to someone else.  

Mentoring has been shown to have numerous benefits including reducing social isolation and improving general health. However, at TimeBank we know that mentoring can be a rewarding experience, not just for those receiving support but for the volunteers also. It can be challenging, but volunteers learn new skills, meet new people, and it can be career enhancing also. Above all though, you will know that you have made a positive difference to someone’s life.

So, if you’re interested, West Midlands-based and aged over 18 send me an email – or ring me on 07835300931.

You can see more about our Time Together project here.

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Let’s postpone the national debate and start a little closer to home

Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of NCVO, recently called for a national debate about volunteering in public services, suggesting that at a time when our health and social care services are under great pressure, volunteering, both formal and informal, could be part of the solution. He said he doesn’t “…believe in putting limits on what volunteers can do, especially not based on ideological arguments about the role of the State…”

This received generally positive views across the sector, but at TimeBank we believe that the voluntary sector needs to address some rather more pragmatic issues that are closer to home before we embark on another national debate.

As a national volunteering charity we champion the role of volunteers – our own volunteers deliver some amazing projects. But when we look around, there is often too much lazy thinking around the engagement and deployment of volunteers. Dozens of “innovative and exciting” national volunteering initiatives and programmes have started over the last decade only to wind up after little or no interest. Many assumed that volunteers could be  the magic solution to many of society’s ills (with little or no evidence as to how they might be), and more tellingly that volunteers would want to participate. So how do we know that volunteers (or those yet to volunteer) want to be part of the solution to the challenges facing public services?

So our first suggestion would be to start by putting the volunteers first and listening to them rather than identifying a problem or challenge and saying “…let’s work out how volunteers can sort this out…”

Sir Stuart might not believe in the limits to what volunteers can and want to do, but our experience of delivering cutting-edge volunteering opportunities for the last 15 years, shows that our volunteers certainly do. If it looks and feels like they are being asked to do an unsuitable role – in public services or anywhere else - volunteers will vote with their feet. The freedom to choose to volunteer also carries with it the right not to. I was immediately reminded of a speech that Boris Johnson gave at a volunteering launch some years ago. The gist of it was that he had been invited to spend the day volunteering on a family farm. He arrived motivated and excited only to be handed a fork and told to spend the day mucking out the pig shed. He claimed he never volunteered again.

Furthermore, we can’t shy away from the impact on paid staff. While we are only too happy to say that volunteers should complement and supplement their work we need tried and tested mechanisms to ensure that volunteers are not used to displace paid staff or undercut their pay and conditions of service.

At TimeBank we feel strongly that volunteers should complement not replace paid staff but that they can be of immense help in areas where they can add value. Our volunteer mentors have supported young people moving from children’s to adult mental health services, for example. And we are now planning a new project which will provide mentoring support to young people with life-limiting or life-threatening illness, to help them make a successful transition from children’s hospices to greater independence and into adult care. This will be an extraordinarily challenging volunteering opportunity where young mentors will add support in a way that paid workers simply don’t have the capacity to do.

The voluntary sector also needs to examine its own approach to volunteering. This can be most evident in the commissioning process where voluntary sector organisations promote the added value of volunteers when in reality it can be little more than a poorly concealed attempt to reduce costs of delivery.

Perhaps most importantly, we would be concerned about those jobs, services or activities that the State has a statutory (or even moral) duty to provide. What protection is afforded to volunteers who do not enjoy the same protections under employment law as workers? Who will clarify and codify how, or even if, an employer and the volunteer can be held to account if the actions of volunteers in delivering  statutory services cause financial loss, inconvenience, pain or damage to reputation?

So please don't look at volunteers as the universal solution to all society’s problems. If your starting point is to identify the jobs no one else wants to do, as roles you can fob off on volunteers, they will simply ignore them. As part of your business planning cycle think strategically about why and where you want to involve volunteers. Then spend as much time considering operationally how volunteers are supported to deliver this. Create an infrastructure in which good volunteering can be supported and managed and create exciting, impactful opportunities. Then the volunteers will come.

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