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How helping others has made our own lives so much better

From teaching young people to read to encouraging a lonely boy to make friends... two inspiring stories ahead of National Volunteer Week. Interviews by Stephanie Bell

Published 28/05/2015

Retired school-teacher Joyce Evans who assists trainee chefs with their reading skills
Retired school-teacher Joyce Evans who assists trainee chefs with their reading skills
Lee Maddocks with pupils at the lunchtime drop-in club at Newtownabbey High School
Rewarding pastime: Volunteer Joyce Evans with William Ellison

We can all casually drop our spare change into a charity tin and feel we have done our bit for society but it takes a special kind of person to go the extra mile and give up their own time to help make a real difference to the lives of others.

In Northern Ireland there are more than 250,000 volunteers freely putting in their time and effort to support local charities and organisations working with those most in need in our community.

Every year National Volunteer Week recognises and celebrates these selfless men and women.

Now in its 31st year, it starts next monday, June 1, with the theme this year of Championing Volunteering — encouraging organisations to highlight stories of individuals who already volunteer and also to identify volunteer champions who have made a huge difference within their communities.

Wendy Osborne, chief executive, Volunteer Now, says: “The message for Volunteers’ Week 2015 is ‘Time to Say Thank You’.

“There are currently over a quarter of a million volunteers in Northern Ireland who all play a vital role, from volunteer drivers to sports coaches, from hospital volunteers to those working in charity shops. 

“Volunteers’ Week gives us the opportunity to shine the spotlight on these volunteers and give them the recognition and thanks they deserve.”

 Today we shine the spotlight on just two of the many thousands who deserve recognition and ask them why they decided to give up their time to help others and what is in it for them.

Retired Carrickfergus teacher Joyce Evans (63) volunteers at Dr B's Kitchen, a restaurant in Belfast city centre run by children's charity Barnardo's which trains young people aged 16-23 with learning disabilities for a career in the hospitality industry. Open since 1991, 80% of young people who trained in the restaurant have gone on to gain permanent employment. Dr B's also equips young people with life skills and qualifications including Essential Skills in English and Maths and NVQs in Food Hygiene and Health and Safety. Joyce gives up one day a week to tutor young people who need extra literacy support in Dr B's. She says:

My career started as a teacher at Abbots Cross Primary in Newtownabbey and then I worked as vice principal at Eden Primary in Carrick.

The Belfast Education and Library Board opened a Reading Centre to provide extra literacy support to children from north Belfast, I moved there and stayed for 17 years, until I retired in 2005.

I've always had an interest in special needs, in the Eighties I went back to Stranmillis College to do a Diploma in Special Education. The way I look at it is you need to be literate to have a full life.

I will always remember one man who came to me for help with reading in his 60s. All of his life he couldn't read. He had hidden it and still bought a newspaper every day, even though he was never able to read it.

He hadn't been able to read to his own children and he wanted to be able to read to his grandchildren.

That really stuck with me and showed me if you can't read how much you are missing out on life and how very difficult life can be if you are not literate.

The Reading Centre was a new challenge for me and I loved it. It was very rewarding. When a child who comes to you because they can't read goes on to read their first book there is an amazing feelgood factor in that.

When I worked at the Reading Centre I would call in to Dr B's Kitchen for a coffee or lunch and if we had any events at the centre I would have used Dr B's for the catering.

I was always impressed with the staff at Dr B's and their commitment to the young people and when they suggested that I volunteer with them after I retired, I thought I would give it a go. All the young trainees at Dr B's are fantastic and it's so rewarding to see how their literacy skills and self-confidence improve with a little bit of extra help.

Getting and holding down a job is almost impossible if you can't read. In the hospitality industry you need to be able to read menus, write down orders, read and follow recipes and have health and hygiene certificates, so being able to read can transform lives and I've seen it happen in Dr B's Kitchen.

I think the key to helping someone improve their literacy is for them to realise the benefits and to want to learn.

Often they have had repeated failure in school using reading schemes, so they need to begin by reading something they are really interested in.

Over the years I've become an expert in Man United, Liverpool FC and more recently One Direction. We read whatever it is the young people are interested in to encourage them. We then move on to 'quick read' books by established authors such as Ian Rankin, Andy McNab, Lynda La Plante and John Boyne and it opens up a whole new world for them.

I love to see the delight on their faces when they finish their first novel and realise they can read. Through learning to read they gain so much confidence and that's reflected in everything they do. It gives me so much pleasure to see the smile on their faces.

I spend every Wednesday at Dr B's and I really look forward to it. The rest of the week I am 'a lady who lunches'.

I really would encourage anyone else thinking of volunteering to consider giving it a go.

It is really rewarding. I am able to use my skill set to help young people become more proficient readers and build their confidence and it is wonderful to see them progressing and feeling proud of themselves. Barnardo's needs volunteers in a wide variety of roles, from mentoring and tutoring to volunteering in the shops to fundraising or providing administrative assistance - there is a role to suit everyone."

Lee Maddocks (29) from Newtownabbey says that volunteering transformed both his health and his life. Lee, who works as a barista, was struggling with severe anxiety and depression when he started volunteering four years ago with Barnardo’s Newtownabbey Family Connections service. The youth service is based in four schools in the Newtownabbey area — Newtownabbey High School, Rathcoole PS, Whitehouse PS and Abbotts Cross PS. Its aim is to support families through parenting programmes, after-school clubs and providing family and education support. Lee was awarded Regional Marsh Trust Volunteer of the Year (2014). He says:

I had to really think about doing this interview and talking about my depression, but then I realised that when I was ill, the thing I really wanted to hear was that it would not be forever and that I still had value. For me, volunteering has given me that.

I could never overstate what a wonderful group of people they are in Barnardo’s and their confidence and belief in me is what helped me to believe in myself.

Depression hit me out of the blue when I was 22. There was no trigger. Everybody wants to put their finger on what flipped the switch, but I just had a general decline in my mood and my perspective got muddled and it spiralled.

I didn’t know what was going on and it is not an easy thing to talk about. It is a big thing for a guy to go to his GP and say he is unhappy and it’s hard to admit you hate yourself.

I got a lot of help along the way and my GP immediately put me in touch with a counsellor.

I had a wonderful occupational therapist at Whiteabbey Hospital who saw me through the next year and a half.

I also got cognitive behavioural therapy which helped me a lot with my anxiety. I had become more or less housebound apart from the occasional trip to the shop. I felt everybody could see what was wrong with me and I had dropped out of work and had to move back home with my parents.

New Horizons suggested volunteering as my first step back into the world, to help bring me out of myself and give me more confidence.

I was pretty sceptical at first and it was terrifying. I was going into it mostly blind and I didn’t know what to expect. I thought once I put myself out there, I could get stuck with something I didn’t want to do.

At first I helped to run a games club two days a week for 12-15-year-olds during lunchtime at Newtownabbey High School and then I also became involved with the Active Dads programme, encouraging dads who don’t always have a lot of contact with their kids enjoying activities together.

I have found that sometimes it is the things which appear very small which can be the most rewarding.

When I first started I helped one young boy, who spent a lot of time on his own, to integrate in the lunchtime Games Club. He was a bit of loner and had no friends.

A few months later, I saw him walking down the school corridor in a group of friends and it was good to know I had played a small part in that. It’s realising that through small interactions you can leave a positive fingerprint on someone else’s life and that’s a real privilege. It was because of that I was nominated for the award. He came out of his shell and developed confidence and it was totally his work, but to know that I had a helping hand in him making friends in his teenage years — well there was something very satisfying about that.

It is such a good group down there and I think at the start they saw how nervous I was and intimidating I found it. But they were all so welcoming and friendly.

Their belief in me and their encouragement helped me to believe in myself. My life from then until now is worlds apart. It sounds so trite, but I have really grown as a person.

Being in a group of people who don’t need to be invested in you but they do anyway, and they see potential that you don’t even see yourself, is what you need to move forward in life — and for me at that moment in time it was what I needed.

The more I did with the group, the better I felt. I now am looking at the option of having a career working with young people and children.

Last year, I went back to college and did a course on children’s care learning and development and I’m looking at doing another course this year.

As part of the course I had a placement as a classroom assistant in a special needs school and I can’t think of a single more gratifying experience. It has made me want to work with special needs children.

I have recently got back to full-time work as a barista and that was the last hurdle back to normality. Volunteering helped me to believe in myself again and it is something I would encourage anyone to consider it.”

How Barnardo’s helps others...

Barnardo’s has over 500 volunteers supporting staff, children and young people in its various projects.

These include volunteer fundraisers, volunteers in shops and those who work directly with children.

There are also more specialised roles for volunteers with particular skills and experience to work with families facing a variety of challenges, from those with a parent in prison or dealing with addiction issues, to those dealing with the chronic illness or recent death of a parent. 

The charity’s director in Northern Ireland, Lynda Wilson, puts into context just how crucial a role they play: “Volunteers are vital to Barnardo’s.

“They bring something special, the children and young people we work with know the volunteers are there because they want to be and are giving up their time to be with them.

“Some families will have a lot of people in their lives because it is their job, so to have someone there because they want to be can immediately change a dynamic and help improve self-worth and self-esteem.”

The charity has over 30 shops which it relies on for funds to continue to carry out its work with children and they would not be able to function at all without volunteers.

For more information about volunteering with Barnardo’s NI, contact volunteering advisor Grainne Maginnis on 028 9067 2366 or email: grainne.maginnis@barnardos.org.uk.

And Dr B’s Kitchen is keen to link up with employers to create work placement opportunities for young people.

Employee support worker Lesley Dobson says: “We really would appeal to employers to consider giving young people with a disability a chance of placement with them. There is so much they can bring including helping with the personal development of a mentor within local companies. As an organisation we are a provider of excellence and we really do need the support of local companies.”

For further information on linking up with Dr B’s to help support young people in employment, contact Lesley on tel: 028 9032 1213.

Belfast Telegraph

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