A lovely friend I met through a Children's Center playgroup reminded me this morning that it is a year today that we started on the Children's Center Volunteering Program. It is not the first time I have been a volunteer - I started as a teenager working weekends and holidays in a Shaw Trust charity shop helping to raise money to help disabled people access employment and have given my time to a variety of different things over the years, but this is the first time I have experienced such a long lasting change to my every day life.
The volunteering training was a very enlightening experience, confirming some training I had previously received in other roles, such as child safeguarding, and opening a window on other areas I knew less about. The people I met through the course have become good and hopefully lifelong friends who I learn so much from in their creativity, compassion and resilience.
The first aid training I received was put into practice a couple of days ago when Ollie choked on his dinner - a couple of firm strikes to the back, the food was dislodged and he carried on eating his dinner like nothing had happened. A seemingly minor occurrence, but every year we have stories in the papers of children choking and dying at school during lunch time, a clear indication to me that everyone should receive basic first aid training.
So what does volunteering involve? It can be anything you want it to be and we very much chose the roles we do and the projects we get involved in. My activities this year included working with other volunteers and our co-ordinator to create a new role of 'Parent Supporter' which meant we could volunteer in play groups with our own children present - we didn't want our volunteering to detract too much from our own precious time with our children, and creches are too costly to run for every activity anyway. This role resulted in four hours a week of volunteering, helping parents and providing a spare pair of hands for staff at two play groups, listening to people's concerns, successes and problems and signposting them on to other support if it was needed, helping to show new visitors to the groups where all the facilities were and generally helping out. I also attend monthly Volunteers meetings where I take the minutes and type them up afterwards. I have been able to put my Facepainting training to use at one-off events in the community and enjoyed attending other events such as the Toddle Waddle just as a parent helping to raise money for new toys for our centers. This summer I helped to research events for children running over the summer holidays for the Children's Center's 'fun alert' - an e-mail listing and website with the most comprehensive guide to free and low-cost activities for under-5 year olds.
We have attended consultation meetings to try to save our Children's Centers from 'de-designation' (effectively closure) and I have become involved in a group which meets monthly with a range of bodies interested in local services including local Councillors and service providers - my role is to provide a voice for service users.
The opportunities for further training have been amazing, from supporting families with a family member in prison (which I'll be quite honest left me in tears - more children in the UK are affected by a family member in prison than are affected by divorce!) to Makaton training. The Makaton training was initially useful to us as a family when Toby had communication difficulties, but also the day after I completed the second level of training I used it to communicate with my first customers at the Face painting stall I ran for a local school's summer fair. It has also led to my involvement in running a 'Shine and Sign' group for children with language delay at a new venue - we had our planning meeting for the term this week and will be delivering our first session in a fortnight.
This week I helped to test the local council's new website and guides for families to try to bring information about what help and playgroups are available to a wider audience for less cost than the old website and printed guides. I walked with the boys through the park with their scooters to get to the session, they had fun in creche for an hour, and then afterwards we spent a fun morning playing in the park. Home for lunch and then back to the park to ride bikes and meet a volunteer friend to put together a proposal for a new group we feel there is a need for following talking to parents in our groups.
Birth and the first days and weeks with a new baby are something which for a lot of people, myself included, are nothing short of horrific due to the negligence and lack of compassion of hospital staff and we were shocked by how many people are carrying the trauma of these early days with them years after the event. We are proposing to put together a monthly session with a creche and a health visitor present where mums can get it all off their chests. We found that the general experience is that we expect to be able to have a natural birth, followed by breastfeeding and cloth nappies, and when this doesn't work out mums feel like absolute failures. Compounded by attitudes of hospital staff and lack of basic care, such as provision of pain relief post Caesarian section, mums come out of hospital to a world that doesn't want to hear what happened because we hold the ideal of motherhood being natural and instinctive - if it's not like that there must be something wrong with you and we don't want to hear your moaning. I was fortunate to have a husband with the compassion to listen and help get me through but too many people are lacking someone to just listen to them. For the thousands of families who need help getting pregnant in the first place this stress happens well before they even get to the birth. Others have trouble bonding with the screaming little bundle of rage placed in their exhausted arms when they expected the 5 minute TV delivery and the airbrushed image of contented mother and child nestled in soft white linen together. So we want a place where we can tell mums that we do want to listen to whatever they want to tell us, get it out in the open and then look at ways of letting it go and moving on and that they're not stupid or a failure, they're real women who are doing great and to share the help that is available when things are not so great.
Other volunteers contribute hundreds of hours between them to supporting an astounding array of groups and events, including baby swimming, music groups, craft and messy play groups, young parents, new parents with twins, book bugs, a Saturday Dad's group and even online support through Facebook groups. Whatever you think there might be a need for, you can find an opportunity to volunteer doing it - and if it doesn't already exist and you can make a good case for it being needed, you will be provided support, advice and possibly even a venue to make it happen. You don't have to be a particular type of person, volunteers come from all walks of life, ages, genders and physical abilities. Some volunteers work full or part time, or aren't in paid employment, some are parents, some are grandparents. The only thing they seem to have in common is a compassionate non-judgmental mentality and a fantastic sense of humour. I'm also hoping that we are raising our boys with the idea that helping others is a normal part of life and with a fantastic community of like-minded people around us with their own compassionate kids for the boys to play with - some of their best friends are the children of other volunteers. The only drawback is the nagging suspicion that we're getting more back than we're giving.