Here at Community Catalysts we’ve been planning how to mark Volunteers Week in a way that celebrates its spirit but also takes full account of our wide experience of people giving their time without payment.
We work with and support lots and lots of inspirational community minded folks across the UK – all running enterprises, groups or ventures. Many of these folks give their time for free in order to deliver services or offer support to people in their community. This kind of ‘self-employed’ volunteering is rarely highlighted but can add real value to communities and lives.
Hungry Worms http://hungryworms.org/ is a grassroots, community initiative created by Darren Gormley from his flat in, Fulham while recovering from an episode of clinical depression. Darren runs Hungry Worms on a voluntary basis. Hungry Worms work to connect local people living with mental health difficulties in a meaningful way, through the power of books and sharing stories and using social spaces in South West London to house community book cases. People who have finished a book they love are invited to donate it to Hungry Worms and it will find its way into the home of someone in their local community. They have recently launched a book club now live and open to new members at www.meetup.com/hungryworms
Other community enterprises and ventures offer an opportunity to contribute to people who might otherwise be disconnected, undervalued or isolated. These kind of opportunities are rarely badged as ‘volunteering’ and often have mutual value to the ‘volunteer’ and the enterprise or venture they support. That said they do involve people giving their time for free and at their best change lives and perceptions.
Men’s Sheds and SLaMS
A Men’s Shed is a larger version of the typical man’s shed in the garden – a place where a group of men feel at home and can pursue practical interests and where members share the tools and resources they need to work on projects of their choosing at their own pace and in a safe, friendly and inclusive venue. The essence of a Shed is not the building but the network of relationships between the members. SLaMS, which links to our micro-enterprise development work in Somerset, provides a social environment (shed) across the Somerset Levels and Moors. SLaMS offers opportunities for older men to learn, volunteer and undertaken community service to increase their self-worth and counteract the effects of isolation, loneliness and exclusion. Some members actively participate while others just sit and chat over a cup of tea http://slams.org.uk
Then we have enterprises and ventures that are paid to run services or to offer supports – perhaps to older or disabled people who live at home. They form relationships with the people they support and see the challenges they face; they care about people on a human level. Many people can’t just turn off their feelings and concern at the end of their funded time. So when it snows and they know people will struggle to get out of the house or when they know that a carer is near breaking point – they give their time, free of charge to clear the path, lend a hand or offer a listening ear. This is volunteering, but under the radar and unrecognised.
Finally we work with community enterprises and ventures that take a more recognisable view of volunteering and offer opportunities for others in their community to do something different and valuable with their time. Many of these enterprises would find it hard to do as much as they do without their ‘volunteer army’ – extending the reach of their work in the community at a time when resources are tight.
Art in Minds Foundation
Most of us have, or know someone who has suffered with mental ill-health in our lives. For some individuals a long-term diagnosis can feel like the end of the world, a loss of identity and a feeling of hopelessness. The ‘Art in Minds Foundation’ is linked to our community enterprise development work in Worcestershire. It has over 160 members who have all experienced mental health issues and many of whom are trained to provide peer support to others. Art in Minds provide weekly art groups and helps members to exhibit their artwork. They also support individuals after discharge from hospital, enabling people to make new friends, share their experiences and creative skills with one another www.artinminds.org.uk
In our work with councils and Government across the UK a strong rhetoric is taking hold – that communities need to ‘step up’ in such straightened times – to fill the gap where public service used to be. I sometimes wonder whether this idea is based on an informed view of reality because from our perspective alongside communities they already seem pretty ‘stepped up’