The Welcome Centre: my volunteering experience
In preparing for my retirement, realising I wasn’t yet completely clapped-out, I decided I could do some voluntary work (beyond my responsibilities at my Local Quaker Meeting, High Flatts) and, after a spell at a charity bookshop which closed, I decided to try The Welcome Centre. I chose The Welcome Centre because it is at the sharp end of need in our community. Immediately I began, I was impressed with how well The Welcome Centre is organised and the positive and helpful atmosphere among the staff and volunteers.
I had made the right choice.
I thought I might like to do some driving (collecting donations from supermarkets), but Lada (Volunteer Coordinator) decided instead she wanted me on telephone referrals and I agreed.
Before volunteers are let loose on the telephone, we learn the ropes, that is, everything else that happens at Lord Street.
Picking and packing dry and tinned food in the store to the client’s needs (whether they are vegetarian, halal, diabetic or with no dietary requirements; for how many in the family unit, etc.) when the referral comes through. On subsequent shifts, we are allocated to fresh – adding the fruit, vegetables, bread, spread, etc., whilst the client waits in reception. The final element of training is reception, greeting the clients (or their support worker) as they arrive, registering their presence, calling through to store for the pack to be brought up to fresh and handing it to them.
Great care is needed to get everything right for the clients and when I finally started on the ‘phones, I was glad of my apprenticeship.
There is no such thing as a typical shift on the ‘phones.
Some shifts can be so busy there’s barely time to draw breath: that is particularly true towards Christmas and in last year’s summer school holidays with the Feeding Families programme and was noticeably the case when Universal Credit was introduced in Kirklees.
Conversely, sometimes a shift can be very quiet: for example, one afternoon between Christmas 2017 and New Year when most of the referring agencies were closed and there was snow on the ground, I took only two calls and that was from support workers actually coming in to Lord Street. Most often it’s something in between, with busy and quiet spells in the same shift.
The Welcome Centre takes referrals from a number of different agencies: The Mission next door in Lord Street, the Community Mental Health Team, Kirklees’ Local Welfare Provision and about a hundred others. The caller explains what the client’s crisis is and we ask various questions to establish what is needed (and why) and enter it into the computer system. We ask the reasons in case we can offer the client further support, for example with budgeting (which would be arranged when s/he comes in).
Some clients are fleeing domestic violence and arrive at the referring agency with nothing except what they stand up in, sometimes they don’t even have National Insurance Numbers, so there’s a wait before they can claim benefits. Others have no income, or no means to fund establishing themselves in a new tenancy. The circumstances are many and varied. Volunteers never refuse a referral without staff authorisation (and refusal is rare anyway). Even at the remove of dealing with the agency, the clients’ stories can feel very upsetting (of course not as upsetting as for the clients themselves).
The volunteering experience goes beyond what we do to help people in need.
When the telephone team were recently all together for some training about the benefits system, I looked round the room at a sizeable group of committed people more or less my own age and thought:
This is my tribe.
On each shift, we see volunteers we work with regularly and we find out about each other’s lives, we joke with each other and commiserate, depending on what’s happening.
It’s a rich and rewarding experience, which I would prefer not to be necessary in a wealthy country, but our government doesn’t properly provide for the most vulnerable, so at The Welcome Centre we step into the breach.
Every silver lining has a cloud.
Helen Meads, July 2019