Thanks to our volunteers we’re finding new ways of working during the pandemic

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Like most organisations, we had some exciting plans for the summer when the UK was hit by the Coronavirus pandemic. In late 2019, TimeBank was awarded a grant from MiFriendly Cities to deliver a project as part of its Share My Language initiative.

Following on from the success of our Talking Together English-teaching project, we designed a six week course for residents across Birmingham who wanted to improve their English language skills, build their confidence and meet new people, through the theme of food and celebration. We designed group discussions, planned trips to the city markets and organised feasts where participants would cook their own family recipes. It was going to be a tasty summer and our volunteers would be at the heart of it!

Now our plans, like everyone else, have changed and we are responding to new challenges. While face to face meetings, travel to the markets and group sessions have been put aside for now, our plan to create spaces for people to talk, meet new people and improve their English language skills remains in place.

Share My Language has gone digital and for us that means using WhatsApp as a tool for chatting and learning. Many of the beneficiaries of our projects have very low levels of English, are not confident using IT or perhaps don’t have access to a laptop, so we wanted to make it as easy as possible for them to engage with other learners. We know that most of our learners have WhatsApp to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, so we have created groups, led by volunteers, where learners can respond to questions or topics twice a week in English and participate in conversation with others at a similar level to them.

So far, we have had learners talking to our volunteers and each other about what they have been up to during the lockdown, what food they have been enjoying during Ramadan and how they have been enjoying the warm weather while staying socially distanced. The best thing about WhatsApp is that learners can respond through voice notes, so they get the opportunity to practice speaking English, even if their written English isn’t as advanced.

Our usual Talking Together classes are an opportunity to socialise for people who may be isolated in their usual day to day lives, so with the additional pressures of the lockdown, it is more important than ever for us to engage with those who rely on language classes as a way to meet people and provide structure in their lives. Through the WhatsApp groups, we are giving learners that space to chat and an opportunity to focus on improving their English language at a time when other services might not be available.

While the pandemic has brought challenges, it has also brought innovation and reminded me that volunteers truly are the heart of what we do. Without the volunteers who have been leading the groups, we would not be able to deliver the Share My Language project at all. When I reached out to volunteers and asked them to be a part of something that we had never done before and didn’t know how it would work or where it would lead to, the response was a resounding: ‘Yes! Let’s give it a go!’ So, thank you to all our volunteers who are on this journey with us and supporting those who are finding life particularly difficult at this time.

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