Volunteers Week (1-7 June) is an opportunity to celebrate the wonderful work of our volunteer workforce. Phoenix Futures and Forward Trust share their thoughts – and gratitude.
Volunteers are a vital resource that need to be developed and nurtured, says Woosh Raza of Phoenix Futures.
As someone passionate about volunteering I’ve been looking forward to Volunteers’ Week as it always gives me an opportunity to appreciate our volunteers and reflect on their contribution to our work. This last year has been a huge challenge for everyone, and amongst all the bad times it’s been amazing to witness the crucial role our volunteers have played in helping us keep our doors open and provide much-needed support to those in desperately vulnerable circumstances. We are incredibly grateful for their dedication, loyalty and support.
The reason for my passion is that I’ve seen time and time again how volunteering can open up a world of possibilities and not just provide a stepping stone into part-time or full-time employment but into a new life. Whether it’s those who have recently completed a treatment programme and are looking to take the next step on their treatment journey, those seeking their first employment opportunity, students looking to gain experience or those returning to work after a break, the common thread is that volunteering opens so many doors to new life experiences.
It’s a testament to the great work of our teams in supporting our volunteers that I can share these stories with you. Stories such as Sarah, who joined Phoenix Futures in November 2020, during the pandemic. ‘I wanted to help individuals struggling with alcohol and to find a company that would provide me with the tools and skills to pursue a career in the field,’ she says. ‘With the assistance of my mentor and my manager, I was able to gain the confidence and skills to run my own groups and work one-to-one with clients. I’m always offered training courses which help me further enhance my skill set, and after volunteering for four months I successfully became an alcohol practitioner in the south of Essex.’
Andy’s story began in Scotland in February 2018. ‘I spent six months in the Phoenix Scottish Residential,’ he says. ‘I came with a 27-year heroin habit – I’d been in jail and on the streets. When I came in I was angry, but CBT helped me look at myself. I was always encouraged by staff, told I was capable. The department coordinator was always on my case saying I should come and volunteer.’
After completing his rehab programme, Andy remained in Glasgow and began volunteering at the residential three days a week. ‘It helped with my confidence. The coolest thing is someone saying thank you. The main idea about being a volunteer was to keep the tools I learned fresh in my head – I didn’t want it going stagnant.’ As the pandemic gathered pace in early 2020, Andy moved into a role as a sessional worker and by the end of the year had become a full-time trainee recovery worker. ‘The work I did as a volunteer helped me learn quickly. I had to be proactive, and become a role model,’ he says.
Ahmed is a member of the Phoenix Futures HR department. His route to volunteering began in Pakistan where he’d just completed his undergraduate degree. ‘After spending 22 years in my home country, I believed it was the right time to seek out another adventure and leave my comfort zone. I had very little guidance on how to study abroad, or even where to do this. I managed to get help from an international agent to proceed with my application and they suggested I apply for an MBA in International HR management from Coventry University in London.’
Ahmed struggled to find an internship for his final project before contacting Phoenix Futures, where he was offered a voluntary position with the HR department. ‘It was an interesting and challenging experience, and the team was very welcoming and happy to answer any questions I had,’ he says. ‘I appreciated that I was treated as a valued member of the team, and not just an intern who was there for two months. After completing my internship, I was fortunate enough to be offered a part-time role as a HR administrator which I accepted whole-heartedly.’
Della began volunteering with Phoenix after graduating from a community treatment programme. ‘I likened leaving treatment to having just passed my driving test. You know how to go forwards, reverse and stop but you haven’t a clue how you’ll perform in a storm or on an icy road. You have a handbook, a phone and a boot full of tools – it’s just a case of working out which tools need to be used to weather a particular storm. My tool is volunteering,’ she says.
‘I applied to become a volunteer and was invited on a volunteering skills course, and since then my interest and involvement in supporting people has just kept on growing. There are three main things I’ve noticed about myself on my volunteering journey – my self-confidence has grown, I no longer attach the feeling of shame to being honest about how I’m feeling, and my empathic opinions through lived experience are listened to and valued. I take pride in saying that I’ve just been employed by Phoenix Futures – I’m not ashamed to say I put the phone down and shed a tear because I felt that my hard work, my recovery, and me as a person are worthwhile again.’
These stories and many others like them drive my passion for building on our offer for volunteers. The events over the past year highlight more than ever the value of creating new opportunities. At Phoenix we’re committed to nurturing our volunteering communities to reflect our passion for recovery.
A leading role
Volunteers are a crucial part of The Forward Trust’s response to the challenges of the pandemic, says Valérie Ferretti.
Forward’s approach to volunteering has changed significantly over the past year, in response to the considerable challenges the pandemic has presented for our service delivery. Volunteering has always been a key part of our service offer, giving service users the opportunity to develop skills, build confidence and progress towards new, sustainable and productive careers. For example, we encourage people who’ve completed treatment to become peer mentors – they’re given accredited training to enable them to support those who are earlier in their recovery journeys and co-deliver programmes and interventions alongside frontline staff. Many progress to full-time paid work at Forward or other service providers. It was therefore important, both to the fulfilment of our mission and the delivery of our services, to ensure our volunteering programme continued to operate.
Our initial task was to ensure existing volunteers were supported effectively, in the face of the practical challenges of lockdown as well as its impact on volunteers’ wellbeing. The second was to slow down recruitment of new volunteers while finding new ways they could engage in our services. In addressing these challenges, we’ve not only been able to continue providing meaningful and rewarding volunteering opportunities, but volunteers have also made a significant contribution to our new and adapted service offerings.
For example, volunteers now play a key role in our digital and remote service delivery. Peer support networks and groups are central to our substance misuse services, and the lockdown forced us to innovate rapidly to ensure they continued through digital channels. Volunteers led new peer support groups via Zoom, and helped to engage service users using the Kaizala messaging app. They were also recruited and trained to deliver our new online chat service alongside permanent staff, which was developed to provide advice and support to people concerned about their drug and alcohol use and related issues during the lockdown.
Interestingly, some of the barriers to volunteering that might be expected did not materialise. For example, many people who want to volunteer with us tend to be most interested in opportunities that involve face-to-face contact. For obvious reasons, these became unavailable during lockdown, but this didn’t alter our volunteers’ interest or commitment – we actually saw an increase in demand for volunteering, including from people in employment.
The pandemic also presented an opportunity to review, improve and diversify our volunteering opportunities, as well as induction and engagement processes. We now have a greater range of volunteer roles, including new mentors for our employment service clients and young offenders, befrienders and volunteers involved in adapting training materials for digital delivery. We’ve also improved our training and induction offer – we now provide training using a more varied range of media, including e-learning, Zoom and online workbooks, giving volunteers more options. In addition, volunteers report feeling more connected to each other, and have built relationships with staff and other volunteers they wouldn’t usually have encountered in face-to-face settings – these positive changes are here to stay.
The pandemic has really brought home the importance of volunteers in everything we do. I’ve been struck not only by the unfailing demand from people wanting give up their time to support us but their immense commitment and passion. It’s been a rollercoaster of a year but, thanks to our volunteers and the changes we’ve had to implement, it’s also been a fantastic time for volunteering. It’s enabled us to move forward and demonstrate our ability to respond rapidly and adapt.