I recently had the opportunity to visit Reading Mencap’s base at Alexandra Road where I had the pleasure of speaking to two of their volunteer team, Mary Williams & Hannah Pritchard, about their experiences of volunteering.
How did you get involved in volunteering?
Mary – When I went into Uni, I originally started studying art because I wanted to go into occupational therapy or I wanted to do art therapy. I’ve now graduated and to go on the path that I want I really need to start gaining experience, which was the main driving force starting this thing.
I’ve only been here about four or five months, I think? I started out working with the ME Project on a Tuesday and then started volunteering with the choir, and then just kind of kept it going ‘cos I enjoyed it so much.
I work at Café Yolk, I’m a Manager there, so I do that full time, and then I have fun here… They’re actually letting me have half days off on Tuesday now, so they’re really supportive, which is really really great.
Hannah – I’ve been a volunteer here for four years; bit like Mary, I was starting out, I was at Uni studying psychology and I needed to get some relevant work experience, so I thought something with learning disabilities was my sort of area of interest, so using the RVA website, I researched what opportunities were available and one of them was for Gateway Club at Reading Mencap, so started off here on a Tuesday.
I was a bit scared at first ‘cos I didn’t know quite what to expect and whether I would be able to cope with that from an emotional point of view, but yeah, it was fine, and then I enjoyed it so much that when I graduated, I hadn’t lined up a job or anything, so… the ME Project was relatively new then and they were looking for quite a lot of volunteers so I started off on one day, and then I gradually increased it to two or three, and then a job came up, which I applied for so now I’m sort of half volunteer, half paid, which is quite nice.
What does the volunteering involve?
Mary – I’m working with the ME Project, which is very much about building confidence and becoming independent. You know, doing little tasks, teaching them. For example, today we were teaching them about healthy eating and last week was about cleanliness, washing hands etc,.
I also helped with the choir. It’s over now, we’ve had out final performance, but that was a once a week in the evening meet-up. We had a wonderful; I call her the ‘choirmaster’, she led the choir, and we sang, really fun, like, pop songs that everyone knew.
“We had some One Direction in there, we did some Elvis Presley, we had some Beatles, and it, like, was just a huge array of songs that everyone really enjoyed”
It was all about, again, gaining confidence, getting up there, and kind of just having a really good time, and they all had their own solos which was really important for them. You know, it was also like a huge sense of achievement; they got up on stage and really let it all go. It was really cool to watch. It was very cool.
Hannah – I’m also working with the ME Project, a day activity service that runs on Tuesdays to Fridays for adults with learning disabilities. What makes it unique is it’s user led, so the service users themselves come up with ideas for what they’d like to do, and then we try and make it happen for them.
“We’ve done some great things like canoeing, which they all really loved, and then we’ve been on trips out like Beale Park. We quite often go down to Palmer Park to go walking, things like that, so… yeah, it’s good fun”
A big thing is about promoting independence; a lot of the people here may struggle to be independent, we try to teach them some important life skills.
What difference do you make to those you are helping?
Mary – Building confidence, self-esteem and independence. I think that’s the main focus really of Reading Mencap as a whole; everyone should have a chance to be independent and have a social life and, you know, that’s kind of what we go for.
Hannah – Social isolation can be quite a big thing for people with learning disabilities, so here gives them a safe place that they can come and make friends and meet people that are going through similar experiences. They can have fun and feel a bit relaxed for a while away from the stresses of home. It is also giving their carers a break, which is very important.
It’s quite interesting seeing how people’s social skills have improved, ‘cos sometimes when people start at a club they can be very timid. They won’t want to interact with the rest of the group and they take quite a lot of encouragement, but once they’ve been coming for a few weeks you can tell that it’s really built their confidence, and they feel more comfortable with interacting with others, which, for me, is really rewarding and is really nice to see.
What do you get out of it?
Mary – I came here to help myself grow on my career path, and again I came here because I wanted to learn how to help people, well, not help people, but you know, help them grow. It’s teaching me a lot just about how people work in general, finding out little tips and tricks of how to kind of edge people on without sounding condescending, which I can use in everyday life now.
I’m learning, and everyday I learn something new about myself. For example, when I first came, I was quite shy… but then it’s all about communicating, and asking questions.
“Once you learn how to just be really open and question as much as everyone else does, then it just kind of works and I’ve found that in life, yeah; if you just question everything, it really does help”
Hannah – When I was on my Uni course, I often found that sometimes learning just long lists of things about people’s behaviours was quite draining, so to get some practical experience to go with the theory really helped.
“I’ve made lots of good friends here, the staff and service users are very friendly and welcoming; it feels like one big family”
What would you say to someone who was thinking about volunteering?
Mary – I would just say go for it. You go in not knowing what’s going to happen or how you’re going to react, but just go for it… if anyone was thinking about it I’d say it’s 100% worth it, 100%.
Hannah – I’d say give it a try, because sometimes you could look at an application form and read all the points, and it can be totally different from when you get there. I remember when I was looking at that advert to be a volunteer here, I remember thinking ‘hmm, I’m not sure if I can do that or not, I don’t know’… most places will give you a trial period, so I’d say go for a trial. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to carry on, but at least you know you’ve tried it and you’re not sitting there thinking ‘what if?
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