Are you looking to try something new and make a difference in the community this year? Cara Houchen speaks to Sunderland’s Volunteer Centre about the opportunities available for people to lend a hand for worthwhile causes.
VOLUNTEER Centre Sunderland celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and they have plenty to shout about.
Established in 1973 as a registered charity, the centre has seen a steady increase in volunteers over the years and now boasts thousands on its books who are keen to give back to the community.
Chief officer of the centre, David Curtis said: “Time is so precious these days so for people to give that up to help somebody else is amazing.”
The centre is a voluntary organisation which exists to promote, support and develop volunteering in Sunderland, Washington, Houghton and Hetton areas.
David explained: “We actively recruit volunteers from all sections of the community and place them with local voluntary organisations who are seeking volunteers to help with their work.
“We also support and advise these organisations on good practice when working with volunteers.
“We try to make it as easy as possible for people to get involved, so they can access our voluntary positions online and in person.
“One of the biggest age groups which volunteers is the younger generation, 16 to 26, which may surprise people.
“It shows they are interested in the community despite what people may think about youngsters today.”
He added: “We always need new volunteers and so do the organisations we supply them to. There is a high turnover because things change and people move on.”
The range of opportunities are vast and you may be surprised by what is available and what you as a volunteer can gain from just giving a little bit of your time.
“People’s main perception of volunteer work is that they will be working in a charity shop,” explained David. “There is nothing wrong with that and we need people in that line of work. But there are many other opportunities out there – you can work with the elderly, children and even animals.
“It’s amazing what the people you help get out of it and what volunteers get out of it, too. As a volunteer you will get full training and you can gain qualifications which will help you in paid work.
“In fact, 73 per cent of employers would employ people who have the experience of volunteering behind them.”
The courses are sourced by the centre when people come to them to ask for advice. Employability courses are just one of the courses they champion. It encourages people who are currently unemployed to brush up on skills and learn new ones.
They can learn how to write CVs, how to approach interviews and use powerpoint to prepare for work. NVQ qualifications are also popular and you can train in areas such as customer services and retail.
The centre has also introduced a mentoring system after finding a lot of people who wanted to volunteer didn’t have the support they needed to do so.
The Volunteer Mentoring Project, funded by the National Lottery, aims to make volunteering more open and accessible to as many local people as possible.
It helps people who may not be able to volunteer independently due to language barriers, sensory impairment, a learning disability or a physical disability.
They are given support from the project’s staff and will be matched to a volunteer mentor, who will work with them on a one-to-one basis and support them into a suitable volunteering opportunity.
David said: “It’s a real confidence builder. Mentors support individuals up to a three-month period or until they feel they are ready to progress to independent volunteering.
“Without it many of our volunteers wouldn’t have come forward.”
David, 45, has been working at the centre for 20 years and says they deal with a lot more volunteers now than when he first started.
“The number increases every year and I think it’s because the people in Sunderland are great,” he said.
“They are so caring about the community and they are always so keen to help out.
“They also want to up-skill or change their career so it’s the perfect way to try out a new industry before you take the plunge.”
Last year the centre had 2,500 new applications from potential volunteers. David says the centre is great for the smaller organisations to get the help they need.
“Volunteers are the glue that hold society together,” he said: “Without them a lot of charities and organisations could not exist and without them society would fall apart.
“If you have never volunteered you should try it. It’s very addictive, once you take part you want to do more.”
For more information go to www.volunteersunderland.org.uk or call 0191 5678902
‘Volunteering is far better than being unemployed’
VOLUNTEERING with ETEC, the not-for-profit company at Hudson House, Sunderland, has given a new city resident the chance to earn while he learns.
Jacek Gontarewicz, 35, came to Sunderland from Poland three years ago.
He wanted to use the skills which he honed over a number of years as a truck driver to become a bus driver in the city.
His first contact with ETEC was when he studied towards literacy and numeracy qualifications as part of the charity’s Learndirect programme.
As his confidence grew, he asked staff about volunteering at ETEC to enable him to study towards an NVQ Level 2 qualification in customer service.
Jacek had been advised to take the qualification when he was interviewed for a job as a bus driver by one of the region’s biggest transport companies.
Since April 2009, he has been volunteering as a receptionist at ETEC’s Hudson House premises.
He has also been assisting staff with a number of administrative duties. Now Jacek, who lives in the East End of Sunderland, has been employed by ETEC as a receptionist/administrative assistant as part of the Government’s Future Jobs Fund programme. He’s considering taking another qualification during his contract and the future looks rosy.
Jacek said: “Volunteering has certainly helped me get this contract and it’s far better than being unemployed!”
‘I wouldn’t change a thing’
Geoff has been volunteering with Age UK for a year at four day clubs each week.
Geoff loves what he does, and says even if he finds paid work he will ensure that he continues with his volunteering.
He loves volunteering with older people and gets so much out of it.
At the day clubs, Geoff runs bingo sessions, raffles, serves tea and coffee, and spends time talking to service users about the week’s events, and about their own lives and stories.
Overall, he finds what he does really rewarding and a positive experience.
“I wouldn’t change it for anytthing,” he says.
‘Volunteering is an excellent thing to have on your CV’
Ahmad works at United Community Action (UCA) as an ESOL Tutor after starting off as a volunteer
He says: “Around a year ago, I was looking for teaching positions. I heard there was an information stand in Sunderland City Library run by Volunteer Centre Sunderland.
“The workers gave me the details of some organisations I could maybe volunteer with.
“I went to UCA and met with the manager, who said that I could start volunteering as soon as my CRB check came through.
“She also said that there may be the possibility of some paid work if she was happy with my volunteering.
“I volunteered for around two months and she was really happy with my teaching.
“I then started paid work in November 2011 and have been teaching for the past three terms and I love my job.
“I am really happy that I came across the Volunteer Centre Sunderland as they helped point me along the right path.
“I feel good as I can contribute to society whilst earning my own money. I get a lot of job satisfaction which makes me feel good – I love seeing the fruit from my teaching.
“I highly recommend volunteering – there is no harm in trying it. Even if there is no sign of a paid job, it is an excellent thing to have on your CV as it shows you have enthusiasm and motivation.”
‘A real confidence booster’
Paul has been volunteering as a gardener for WCDT (Wearmouth Community Development Trust)since November 2009.
He volunteers three times a week for five hours a day.
When Paul first started to volunteer he seemed to be very quiet and did not feel comfortable approaching members of staff.
Over the past six months, though, his confidence has really grown as well as his communication skills.