• Libby

Transcript - Improving Mental Health Through Volunteering with Rachel, Supported Volunteering (E3/1)



Libby: You are listening to Constellations, the podcast connecting charities, communities and causes in the Essex unitaries of Thurrock and Southend. In today's episode, we are talking all things volunteering with Rachel from Supported Volunteering, one of the many fabulous projects at SAVS. Supported Volunteering is an amazing resource in the community, helping people find their way into volunteering, improve their mental well-being and supporting them to create pride and joy in Southend. We loved catching up with Rachel and finding out more about the project. Let's get stuck in. Welcome Rachel and thank you so much for coming to talk to us!


Rachel: Absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me ladies!


Libby: So tell us a little bit about supported volunteering - a little introduction for anyone who's hearing about it for the first time.


Rachel: The supported volunteering is a project that supports people who are looking to improve their mental well-being into volunteering roles. So we work one on one with people to find out what they like, what they don't like and then match them up with a volunteering role hopefully to improve people's mental well-being. So we think of volunteering as a stepping stone onto something else. And the question we always ask the person that's sitting in front of us is, “what is that next step for you and how do you want to get there and can we help you do it?” So that's really in a nutshell what supported volunteering is.


Libby: That’s brilliant!


Sharen: Yeah that’s lovely and how did it come about?


Rachel: We had the volunteer centre here at SAVS and we noticed there was a number of people coming through the front door saying, well I want to do some volunteering, but I'm feeling a bit anxious about it or I'm feeling a bit wobbly about the prospect of volunteering. So we approached the big lottery and said, “Hey, we'd love to run a project that is going to offer extra support to people so that they can get into volunteering” because we didn't want to turn anyone away. But not everybody works in the same way when they're taking something new on. So for some people it's very easy to walk through a front door and say, “can I do some volunteering please?”. And off they go and they do volunteering. But for other people there may need to be like a process of a few steps to get to that volunteering point. So thankfully we got some lottery funding, that was 12 years ago and here we are now still going. So it's a much needed project.


Libby: Are there any common barriers that are sort of consistent? Do lots of people have the same issue stopping them?


Rachel: Yeah, I think being socially isolated. I think that comes up the most. If you think of, I don't know, let's say a mum who's been raising her children and her kids have now gone off to school. And she's been at home, you know, doing her mum thing for the last four or five years. She may feel as though she's lost her confidence a little bit and not quite sure how to go forward, therefore she's feeling maybe socially isolated. That comes up a lot, a lot of people will say to me, hey, I just don't go out the front door and I'm thinking volunteering is a reason to go out the front door. So being socially isolated is a big one. Feeling anxious about trying something new comes up a lot. And I think that's, you know, that's pretty normal. We will get really anxious about trying new things.


Libby: Yeah definitely.


Rachel: So anytime you're trying something new, it's really nice, isn't it to have someone who's going to be standing side by side with you that's going to encourage you and tell you you can do this, that kind of thing.


What else kind of comes up as a barrier? I think it is that anxiety that seems to be the biggest thing and also not knowing what's out there, not knowing what volunteering is. How to go about finding it and not knowing what's available in the community. So, you know, we shout out quite a lot on social media about what volunteering is, is out there because that's really important because I think people think it's all about charity shops and I don't know, working with older people in the community centre and it's not. There’s… In Southend alone, there's over 500 different types of volunteering roles. And you know, it's just such a big scale of what you can do out there, it's not just charity shops. Although charity shops are brilliant. And if I was going to do a volunteering role, that's the one I would choose. Because I'll be able to get my hands on all the good stuff.


Libby: <Laughter> Brilliant, me too!


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Sharen: And in terms of the commitment needed from people, does that really vary like some people do a couple of hours and some people obviously do more?


Rachel: Yeah. Yeah. I think there is a, a kind of a myth around volunteering that, you know, you're going to have to commit a whole day or, you know, you're gonna have to do it once a week. But most of the charities that take on volunteers, their volunteers are like gold dust. They're very grateful for any time that you can offer any of your time that you are willing to give for free. You know, charities are so grateful. So if you can only do one hour a week, that's fine. If you can only do four hours a month, that's fine. It's just about talking to organisations and saying this is the amount of time I've got - can I be of any help to you?


Sharen: Obviously the past two years have looked very different for all of us. What did you have to change in the pandemic to kind of make it work and to support people still?


Rachel: Yeah. Yeah. We, well volunteering in the normal sense shut down because everything shut down. That was really difficult for a number of people that I supported because going to volunteering once a week, or twice a week or whatever it is, is a focus and a routine that becomes very important to people. It is also about, you know, that social connection again, you know, having a connection with people at their volunteering position and that then suddenly stopped. So, you know, it's a reality that for some people their volunteering is the only thing they might do that week apart from maybe go to Sainsbury's. You know, that's it. So we had to adapt very, very quickly like everybody else and we supported people by any way we could really, so phone calls, emails, facebook messaging, facetime… Just again to keep people connected and trying to connect people with each other. So, you know, encouraging people to get in touch with their old volunteer mates and stay in touch with family if it felt safe to do so. Just connection, really, that's how we had to work.


And of course, there were some volunteering opportunities. There were lots of people going around, taking shopping around for their neighbours and things like that. But the nature of the people that I support, meant that that wasn't really the type of volunteering that they would feel comfortable doing, you know, kind of face to face meeting strangers and going in people's houses and things like that. So mostly volunteering shut down for a number of the people that I support.


But here we are coming out on the other side and charities are reopening up and looking for volunteers again. And I don't know if, volunteering, the face of volunteering is going to change again because it does every so often. You know, would it become volunteering from home more? I don't know, we’ll have to wait and see.


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Sharen: I think it's important to say how much support you actually offer your volunteers. So you don't just find them somewhere to go or a placement and then that's the end of it from you. You're there continuously, aren't you?


Rachel: Yeah. Yeah. So we offer, I guess it's like a person centered offering. So we're always asking the person what they need from us and we are trying to look at that holistically. So we're not just focusing on volunteering. We are finding out about that person and finding out what their interests are. So I don't know if someone says, oh, I used to do a bit of drawing back in the day, then we might say, hey, did you know about the metal art group in Chalkwell Park? Have you considered going there? We'll do some volunteering but that might be great for you at the moment. Or we may say about the Ways2Wellbeing courses at the adult college, which are fantastic free courses designed to improve people's mental health and so we might sign post that person to that. But we also offer social groups, which in my opinion, um, people's mental health declines the moment they haven't got a social group. So it's really important that we hold coffee groups once a month. We hold walk and talk sessions once a month. And I try and organise as many free workshops as I can because it's not just about volunteering - we're offering like a whole package of a kind of well-being package. Supported volunteering project is looking at the person and their individual needs. And if we can help in any way we will, and if we can't help them, we're going to point them in the direction of someone that hopefully can help.


So… We match someone with volunteering. Um, we do that over a number of sessions. That person then hopefully goes off to volunteer but we’re still there in the background, so if someone starts volunteering and it's not quite right or they're not enjoying it or they're really worried every time they go, you know, we're here in the background to answer any questions and to hopefully encourage people to go forwards and keep going. Because, you know, those wobbles can be really big and wobbly and worrying. So yeah, it's an open ended working relationship with someone who we place in volunteering. And some people, we find them volunteering and we never hear from them again and they've gone off and they've flown the nest and all that business and occasionally we might hear that they've gone on to get a job or they've gone on to train to be a mental health nurse or whatever that scenario is and other people I've placed them in voluntary positions and I hear from them all the time. They always want to give me these brilliant updates and they'll go on and do different volunteering positions or they'll go on to have kids or whatever it is they're doing. So it's lovely to hear those success stories and people come back to us and tell us how they got on.


Libby: That’s so lovely.


Sharen: That’s great yeah.


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Rachel: We did some research with young people because we noticed that the 18-25 year old age group, I wasn't getting many people come through and we didn't know why. So we went and asked 18-25 year olds what it was about volunteering that they didn't like and the majority of them didn't even know what it was. Like, had no clue.


Libby: That’s fascinating.


Rachel: Had heard of it but it wasn't in their radar and just wasn't a thing. And then when we dug a little bit more, it was, the main thing that came up was, well, why would I do something for free? So not being able to see what the benefits were.


Libby: Yeah.


Rachel: So, I mean, the benefits again, just a massive range of benefits. So it could be work experience, it’s an experience of going out to work It could sit really well on a CV and look really good on a CV if you're going for other jobs. It could be about getting out of the house, it could be about making friends, it can be about training in a job that you might want in the future. Um, it could be someone who's retired and doesn't want to um, you know, fall into retirement and not do anything ever again. Or it could be someone that wants to give back to a community that once upon a time helped them.


So there's all these benefits and explaining that to young people really made a difference because they were like, I didn't really think about it like that. I was just thinking I'm not doing that for free, why would I do that for free? Quite right. You know, so it's really interesting to get a different perspective. Of course, the older generation, when you talk to the older people about volunteering, they remember volunteering after the war. So let's get our community back together, you know, keep calm and carry on and all that business. So volunteering to them is something very, very different.


Libby: Yeah, completely different perspective. Yeah.


Rachel: Yeah, yeah, completely different. Volunteering, it's so fascinating. Who even knew it was so fascinating?! We could talk all day about it.


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Rachel: So, we, uh, again, the lottery very kindly agreed to employ a younger person in the project alongside me to work with that age group. And so she's been going out trying to engage younger people and what we're finding is very, very different from the over 30s. So, the over 30s, when they're looking to improve their mental health, they want stability, they want regularity, they want to know exactly where they're going and when they're going. And that's got something to do with anxiety, etc, you know, about feeling secure and safe.


But the younger generation, they want something quick and they want it now and they want to be doing it and it better be fun and it better be fast… So, we're adapting to that and figuring out how we can do this kind of short term volunteering rather than the long term volunteering that older people - I mean, I'm generalising, not all older people over 30 want that - but in general, they want their stability and they want it to go on for the next number of years. Whereas younger people just want it very quickly because they're going to be busy doing something else very, very soon. Which makes sense.


Libby: How did you first get involved in the charity sector?


Rachel: Oh, these are such good questions! Um. Well, I first got involved in mental health because I was going through my own mental health problems and I went to see a therapist and that therapist was absolutely brilliant and I thought I want to do that. I want to be a therapist. So, I was working in a kind of dead end job at the time. I found out about counselling courses and started studying counselling courses in the evening while still doing my day job and that took about four years to get that qualification. And then once I had that qualification, and I was like, right, ok, what am I gonna do with this qualification?


So, I started a private practice as a therapist and that was going fairly well, but that's quite hard business to run and pay a mortgage and raise a child and all the other things you got to do. So I couldn't really do that as a full time job. So that's when I looked to the charity sector. And my first job was at trust links, growing together gardens at Westcliff. It's a tiny little garden and in those days, used to have lots of patients that would come directly from Runwell, the psychiatric unit, and they would come to growing together, and that would be their stepping stone back into the community.


Um, and I would say I just met some wonderful, wonderful people who were on the road to recovery at growing together. And I learned all my mental health skills there. It was proper grassroots, you know, you're doing gardening, you're seeing people that have been really unwell, you know, stepping back into their lives and with great stories and, you know, um and I just learned all my skills there, it was fantastic.


Then someone told me about a job at SAVS. That they were starting a new project called support volunteering. And someone said, Oh, you should go for that job. And I said no! And they encouraged me to fill out the application form, and I did and somehow I managed to blag my way through the interview and get myself a job here at SAVS and here I am 12 years later…


Sharen: … And you’ve never looked back.


Rachel: … And I've never looked back. So that's how I got into the charity sector.


Libby: Oh that’s amazing.


Rachel: So whenever someone comes to me and in fact someone did it today and said, I really want to work in mental health but I don't know how to do it. I will just always advise just whatever appeals to you, go for it. And for me it was learning how to be a therapist. Just go for it and, just see what happens. You just never know. Go for your goals. Go for your dreams and just do it.


Libby: I love it.


Rachel: It can work out. Yeah.


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Libby: Could you tell us a couple of different roles that come up when you're helping people find volunteering?


Rachel: Yeah, sure. So um, there's lots of different types of roles. So there are gardening roles, there are cooking roles, there are working with um, people that are rough sleepers, you could volunteer there. Food banks, charity shops, which we've mentioned. Most charities have office and admin roles that people can get involved with. All of the vulnerable groups of people - lots of volunteering within those vulnerable groups of people; so older people, adults with learning difficulties, um, children, teenagers, young children, mental health, drug and alcohol, domestic violence… All those kind of groups of people that are vulnerable and need supporting, there's lots of volunteering in those arenas. Driving volunteering roles, volunteering at the hospital, volunteering for the libraries, volunteering for the museums. You can do litter picking, you can do beach cleans, tons and tons of volunteering roles. All different types for whatever skills you're looking for, I'm pretty sure there's a volunteering role out there for you.


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Libby: What's your favourite bit?


Rachel: What about this? Oh, without a doubt helping people - I just, it just makes me feel really good inside. That's why I like doing it. I love hearing when people have succeeded in what they wanted to succeed in and sometimes their goal is just to get out of the house every day and that deserves a round of applause. And then for other people it's about starting their own business and that deserves a round of applause. So it doesn't matter how big or small it is. If someone comes back to me and says I did it, then you know, I get all excited. That's why I do this job. I love it.


So you can phone us at SAVS on the main number 01702 356000. You can email me on svproject@SAVS-southend.co.uk. You can find us on the website. So go to the SAVS website S A V S, SAVS, and just give us a call or get in touch however you want to get in touch.


Libby: Thank you so much for coming to talk to us today. It was brilliant to talk to you.


Rachel: It's been so lovely. I hope I can come back


Libby: Of course you can!


Sharen: Any day.


Rachel: Anytime!


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Libby: Thank you so much for listening. If you've got any questions for us, have suggestions for topics you'd like to hear about or any individuals or organisations you would like to hear us interview, please send us an email at hello@constellations-podcast.org.

We would also be really grateful if you could leave us a review and share this podcast with anyone that you think would enjoy listening to. Thank you again and take care. Bye!


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