As part of our Volunteers’ Week 2016 profile series, I caught-up with Smart Works Reading volunteers Angie Alderman and Lynn Dowding. Having stepped off of London Street into Smart Works bright modern office, Angie and Lynn shared their experiences of volunteering with me.
How did you get involved in volunteering?
Lynn – I have been a HR professional for 20 odd years. I came to Smart works after seeing an advert on LinkedIn and thought it was a great fit for my background and a way of giving something back as I hadn’t done any voluntary work previously.
Angie – My background is nothing to do with fashion but I’ve always had a love of clothes and helped my friends get outfits, so it’s always been there in my life. I’m a recently retired civil servant, I took voluntary redundancy and really wanted to do something in the voluntary sector. I’d tried before and not found the right fit for me and then I heard about Smart Works Reading and it was like someone had made my perfect job for me, the fact that I don’t get paid for it is like whatever really, I just love it.
What does the volunteering involve?
Angie – I volunteer on the dressing side. As dressers we act as the first point of contact, we welcome the client make sure they are comfortable, make them feel special and comfortable, they are the words I try to hang on to.
We have a chat with the client and find out what job they’re going for and what they will feel comfortable in wearing. That’s important, some people are very open to trying new things and some people come in and say I want black trousers and a white shirt and literally that is their starting point, it’s not where they finish usually, but it’s where their starting point is.
So we will select a rail of clothes for them to choose from; bring them through to look at them, see what takes their eye, what they would like to try on, no pressure at all if they don’t like any of them we can go and select more outfits. Usually there are a couple of things there to start on and then we kind of build from that, so say if we find a nice pair of trousers that they are happy in we would look for a top. And this is an interview outfit so all the time it’s about trying to get the clients to imagine walking into that interview in what they are dressed in. So it’s not about ”I love this” it’s how will you actually feel walking into that interview.
We start from their comfort zone… it’s amazing how quickly someone can realise, by looking and seeing and experiencing how great they look, their confidence grows.
Lynn – So they come to the interview skills section after their dressing experience and it’s quite nice just to see them walk through the door because they usually have a big smile on their face. On the Interview coach side of things, we talk about the interview they have lined up, the things they are worried about, the things they need help with. We have a guide that we take them through. We cover a full range of introductory questions for example; what are your strengths, talk me through your CV etc. Then we take a look at some competency-based questions and scenario based questions so that they get more familiar with those sorts of situations.
Many of the people who come through the door have not had that experience before and they might feel a bit shocked by it, so its about just trying to get them to talk and getting them to think about what they need to do to prepare for the interview. They take the guide away with them, there are a couple of checklists in it and we get them to go through those before they go for their interview.
I tend to focus on the positives of the individuals for the interview, to say you can do this and stay positive, people are so good at knocking themselves and being negative about things so it’s about staying on that positive vibe really… it’s very rewarding.
What difference do you make to those you are helping?
Angie – We help people from a range of backgrounds; we have had people come in who have come from the probation service, people with mental health issues, people who are near homeless or people who are just in a really difficult part of their lives. We see a whole range of ages, I have dressed a 17 year old in the morning and a 56 year old in the afternoon, different sizes, everything!
Lynn – I think it’s a big thing for them to know that someone is there for them and that nobody is going to criticise them, nobody is here to pull them to pieces, it’s all about giving and I think they’ve just not had that before and that makes a difference.
Angie – If someone does get the job they can come back for a second dressing and get a bit of a capsule wardrobe to help them before their first pay-packet and we can ask them about the actual job, what kind of clothes they need. We have three second dressings today… that’s three people now in employment. The people who come back for a second dressing are incredibly different to when they came for their first dressing, there’s more eye contact, they’re more confident in themselves and their body confidence… they’re just ready for it, they know this is going to be fun, that they are in a safe environment and are going to get help to take them in to those next few months.
The transformation we see in the clients happens everyday, not just once a day but a number of times a day for each person we work with.
What do you get out of it?
Angie – After I took voluntary redundancy, I decided I really didn’t want to do anything like that again as it was very pressured. I have lots of personal hobbies but I wanted something else that would put me in a work environment but a very different work environment.
It’s completed my pizza, you have a pizza of life made up of different parts like your social life etc and of course the work part of my pizza was a really important part of it but I feel that volunteering with Smart Works has completed that part of it. It does feel like work, I’m here to do a job for the people I’m here to help, I have responsibility so it’s like work but it’s even more pleasurable because I’m choosing to do it.
It’s very special… everything from what happens to the clients to the camaraderie amongst the people who work here. It’s become a really important part of my new life after I stopped work.
Lynn – For me it’s about staying grounded I think, my background is in the corporate world and it’s so easy to get wrapped up in what goes on in those big organisations and to forget about everyone else. For me it’s about saying there are everyday people out there who need some support and whom I can help.
It’s about the positive impact we make on individuals; it’s just about people at the end of the day.
What would you say to someone who was thinking about volunteering?
Angie – I feel privileged that I have found something that is just so amazingly well fitting to what I’m passionate about doing. And that would be my advice to people, to think about something that you really like doing and try and find something that matches that.
Lynn – I would just say give it a try, there is nothing to lose
Inspired? Take a look at opportunities to get involved with Smart Works Reading.
Not quite what you are looking for? See many more opportunities at our www.rgneeds.me site