Linda’s practice of recruiting volunteers with additional support needs shows that a mix of ages and abilities provides a rich experience for everyone.

Icing on a rich and satisfying cake

Linda Wright manages the staff and volunteers at a busy day centre for older clients. In terms of providing the service she sees her volunteers as ‘the icing on the cake’. “Sometimes it takes additional time to support volunteers who have extra needs” she admits, “but often we find they have extraordinary gifts to offer. The system we use for recording our cash on a daily basis was thought up in 1995 by a volunteer who came here. He had significant illness and was a double amputee but he had been a veterinary surgeon – a very intelligent man. He worked out a full-proof system which we still use today. We would have lost that bit of knowledge and expertise if we had not made the time and seen what he had to offer. He could also set tables because he could still manoeuvre his wheelchair about, although serving food was too risky. “

“I think you need to have patience and be able to adapt” explains Linda. “I am also the Health & Safety Officer in this building and at the beginning we had regular monitoring of what was going on at mealtimes which is one of the riskiest periods because of hot food and drink being served. To avoid or reduce these risks I have had to think carefully about which tasks to allocate people to. Understanding how people’s impairment affects them helps. If there is an issue or problem, we think a way round it that adapts sensitively to the needs of the volunteer and still makes sure that we maintain the effective flow and safe working practice that we have to work to when it is busy”.

Has Linda ever had a bad experience with a volunteer that put her off recruiting people with additional support needs? “Yes, we have been in that position but we have looked at how we could possibly adapt to bring that person back again. I think you have to give people a chance. Yes it can be difficult in here some days, and some people might be in a mood, or unhappy, or in pain or whatever, but people learn to say ‘well I guess this is what it’s like today. Next week might be different’”.

Part of the reward for Linda is watching volunteers build relationships with clients. She cites the example of teenage volunteers with significant needs who have gone down well with the older people. “We have two teenage girls just now who are at college and during the holidays they come in when they can. It is nice to hear the conversation. You hear them telling the clients about their latest pop star that we have never heard of. A lot of the clients have grandchildren that they maybe don’t see and suddenly here is a young person who is interested in them and is somebody to talk to. The girl we had in last week was working in the women’s group which she does every Friday. Some of the ladies didn’t want to do what the rest of the group were doing so she gave them a wee pamper session: massaged their hands and varnished their nails – the kind of things young folk do with their pals but are happy to do here too”