I discovered Volunteering Matters (CSV at the time) during research for gap year opportunities whilst I was undertaking my A Levels. Following work experience at a local school for children with profound learning disabilities and for children on the autistic spectrum, I had been inspired to take time away from education to volunteer. I was determined to find a placement that involved working closely with people, that helped to deliver opportunities and that was long-term. Volunteering Matters provided exactly what I had been looking for via full time volunteering.
My placement began in September of 2014. My role was in Harleston, South Norfolk with the Choices project, living with and supporting Veronica, a lady with learning difficulties to live independently. The duration of my placement was nine months. My role was to support her in day-to-day life and offer companionship; we would go for walks, do the shopping together, bake together and just have a bit of a natter. From day to day I assisted with the little things; being someone in the house who’s able to reach the top shelf, change light bulbs, help with the weekly shop and the cleaning. Importantly within my placement, I was there for companionship. My service user lives alone and though she’s surrounded by family, it makes a significant difference to her life having someone else in the house to chat to during the day.
The first few weeks of my placement were difficult as I adapted to a new role and environment and Veronica adjusted to having a change in volunteer. She struggled at first to get used to me, often expecting me to act exactly the same as her previous volunteer. It took a while for her to get used to my presence in the house and for me to pick up on cues from her as to when she needed more assistance versus when she wished for some time alone. We soon worked through this hurdle though and went on to develop a good relationship.
One aspect which helped form our bond was baking. I have always been a keen baker and one day, whilst kneading bread, Veronica commented that she had always seen her mum bake like that but never learnt to do it herself. I taught her how to bake bread and it soon became part of our routine that we would bake together weekly. Veronica is fiercely independent with regards to her own cooking so it was really significant that we were able to develop this routine together.
I’ve learned a lot throughout my time so far as a volunteer. Independence has been a big thing for me as the start of my placement also marked the first time I had moved away from home. Then there’s an abundance of things that you learn through supporting someone else’s lifestyle. Being with Veronica daily has helped to develop my empathy; I find it easier now to see things from other’s perspective as I’ve had to learn how to do that in order to give her the best support. I have also developed skills in communication, being able to pick up on smaller cues from Veronica as we spent more time together.
I would like to think that I have helped Veronica develop her confidence, towards the end of my time with her she was becoming more willing to try new experiences. At the beginning of my placement, there was very much a set routine whereas though that still exists, she started to try and build in new experiences around that. For example, for her birthday we went on a boat trip with her family. Since her new volunteer started supporting her she has expanded that to going on a helicopter ride, ever excited to try new things. This is something that not only applies to the big events but also little aspects within her life such as the baking. Together we worked at introducing new things slowly into her environment and practicing skills like baking and cooking together.
Spending my gap year volunteering was a hugely influential and important developmental experience. I learnt a lot and believe that I was able to help Veronica do the same. Through the year I began to grasp the value of volunteering within your community and it’s a value that I never want to lose sight of.
I am now in my first year of studying English Literature at the University of Winchester. This year is about adjusting back into the cycle of academics and applying myself to get a good foundation in my degree. Volunteering and being an active part of the community is something that my university prides itself on; doing a gap year with Volunteering Matters was one of the aspects of my application that secured a space studying here. My focus for the moment is at establishing a footing in Winchester both within university and the city itself. Next year once my routine is established, I am looking forward to getting involved with the volunteering programmes available at the university; balancing time between volunteering, studying and my job.
I would wholeheartedly recommend volunteering with Volunteering Matters to others. It’s an opportunity to get out into the world and develop yourself as an individual before setting off to university or, alternatively, as an expansion post-studies. You will learn so much from the people you are supporting, have many joyful moments and have a year incomparable to anyone else’s.