Thursday, March 23, 2017
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Summer 2003 is forever associated for me with the Special Olympics—it was a magical time and I treasure the memories. Right from the start, from the induction sessions at The Point, I was sucked into the buzz, the excitement and the wonder of it all. Being part of the huge crowd of volunteers at the show there and knowing that similar large groups had met, and would meet, gave me a sense of belonging and pride. I was hooked!

I remember when the letter came assigning me to Football in UCD Belfield, I got such a slagging at home, because I never could understand the off-side rule. Luckily, as it turned out, I had nothing to do with the actual matches being played and was put to work in the staging of the five-a-side football competition.

Collecting, and later modelling, my volunteer uniform was the next stage. My daughter had also volunteered, so we (nearly) looked like twins!! We had a trouser ‘ensemble’ and a skirt ‘ensemble’ each and the countdown was on to the start of the games. I had won two tickets for the opening ceremony which I gave to my daughter and son. I was glued to the television on the night of the opening and found the whole experience so emotional. The coverage was enhanced for me by the constant mobile phone calls from my children: ‘Mum, did you see that?’ ‘Mum, the sound here is unbelievable, the television couldn’t do this justice…’ I was happy to watch it all and to cheer from my armchair.

Then it was time to go to work. I donned the uniform and managed to squeeze quite an array of stuff into my bum-bag, before rambling down to Belfield. I don’t live too far away from UCD, but invariably somebody stopped to offer me a lift en route, once they spotted the uniform! One day while I was kitted out, I ran across the road to a neighbour’s house—and, would you believe it, I got two offers of a lift to Belfield while I was waiting to cross the road over and back!!

In Belfield my job was to go to the Registration Tent and collect a team, bring them to the dressing room, leave them to tog out, collect them on the far side and lead them onto the field of play. I met only wonderful teams and wonderful people. My first team was South Africa. Having deposited the athletes in the dressing room, I ran around to the exit and lined up with all the other volunteers, like anxious mothers waiting for their children to come out of school. My abiding memory of that first day was the chant I could hear coming through the dressing room before my team emerged. They sang and danced their way onto the pitch. What could a volunteer do but dance along? The opposing team from the USA took it all in their stride. The Cypriot team that I was with another day had whistles to accompany their arrival. Soon everybody knew when these teams were playing. All the athletes played their hearts out. Some memories I have of the playing are comments like ‘He’s not going to give you ball, you know, go get it!’, ‘Brian, No! We are playing the other way!’. There was the goal keeper who (when facing a very strong player) went down on her hunkers and closed her eyes as the striker took her shot (I would have too!), the cheers and the tears, the hugs and the smiles, and the huge crowds of people who would gather around to watch Ireland play, the school children who came along to cheer and, most importantly, to collect autographs. I took hundreds of photos and I am sure that my own picture has travelled the world, as I was always included in so many of the team photos.

Everybody was in good humour and the sun shone for us. I loved the lunchtime fun; especially memorable was the outdoor disco when athletes and volunteers had a chance to boogie! One day, when there was a bit of a lull in the dancing, the DJ played the Conga and out from double doors just behind him came a long line of all the match officials and referees in their black uniforms and white knee-socks—doing the Conga! They got such a cheer from everybody…la, la, la, la—and then, of course, we all joined in. That’s what it was all about for me, joining in. Like many other volunteers, I worked when my shift was over, I turned up on my days off, and I just had to see all my teams when it came to the medal ceremonies. I was addicted to the games and couldn’t stop talking about them. I remember going to the supermarket in Dundrum, in my uniform, and people stopping me to ask where I was based, usually followed by a question as to how Ireland was doing!!

At the closing ceremony I met up with my sister and we squatted together at a stand, knowing that we each had a volunteer daughter working in Croke Park that night. We were proud as any mothers could be. I had to leave a little early to travel down the country, but I can still hear the strains of Westlife singing on that mellow Sunday night as I made my way to the car park. I felt sad that it was all over, but so privileged to have been part of the experience.

About a month after the Games I got a knock on the door from a neighbour, asking me to put on my Special Olympics uniform and come outside. My daughter and I did just that, caps, bumbags, the lot. Then all of us on our stretch of road who had been involved in the Games met and had a photo taken, the green-uniform volunteers, the red-uniform volunteer and the yellow-uniform volunteer. We swapped memories, and collectively felt sorry for people who had not volunteered!! They didn’t know what they had missed.

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Tom Hogan is Chairman of the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies (and Chief Executive of the Galway Association). This article is extracted from his address to the Federation at their Conference in Galway in May, 'The future role of the voluntary sector in the provision of intellectual disability services'.

Voluntary organisations have provided services to persons with an intellectual disability in Ireland since 1868. They now account for approximately eighty per cent of intellectual disability services within the Republic. The voluntary sector has played a pioneering role in the development of services and has been innovative in responding to changing needs. The 49 voluntary service providers who are members of the National Federation are organisations which are non-statutory, self-governing, of benefit to the public, and not-for-profit (as differentiated from the private sector). Some members are religious organisations, others are incorporated by charter or under companies legislation. Most of them include the involvement of parents, with volunteers as an important element of their make-up.

What makes voluntary organisations different? Firstly, our Federation members are single-focus organisations. Health boards have a wide brief to deliver a vast range of services to the public. Our member organisations focus solely on the provision of services for people with intellectual disability. This single focus has inevitably meant that a great deal of expertise has been built up which is widely shared among our members. We are innovative in our approach to the design and delivery of services. Our services are more labour intensive than hospital services; this is reflected in a strong commitment to staff training and development.

Many of our activities retain a voluntary nature. In my own organisation, for example, the Board of Directors (a widely representative group composed of parents, friends and community representatives) provide their time and input to the organisation free of charge and they ensure the highest standards of corporate governance. Volunteers actively participate in many elements of our service provision—swimming, horse riding, social outings, befriending, etc. A third strand of voluntary activity is fundraising—notwithstanding the increase in exchequer funding made available to agencies over the past few years, many projects still depend on fundraising activities for seed capital or top-up funding.

The Federation has been in existence since around 1970, but the negotiations arising from the implementation of the 1994 Health Strategy galvanised the membership into a much more cohesive group. We have developed good working relationships with the Department of Health and Children and with the health boards (although we would wish for speedier implementation of the recommendations of Enhancing the Partnership, particularly in relation to the Consultative and Development Committees). We have engaged in discussions wit NAMHI and the National Parents and Siblings Alliance, with whom we have launched media campaigns to highlight the need for additional revenue and capital to put services in place for those who are without them—much remains to be done. A new Health Strategy is due to be launched this summer. We expect that the document will reinforce the commitment to the voluntary sector and acknowledge its achievements and plans for better services and the elimination of waiting lists.

The nature of our work makes partnership imperative to its success. Our first partnership is with those in our care. Unlike the hospital sector, the relationship of a service provider in the intellectual disability sector with a person who is referred to it is likely to be a lifetime relationship. If a child is referred to an agency at perhaps five years of age, that individual may well be availing of services from the agency for up to sixty years, or even longer. The relationship with that person and his family is key. Naturally, our relationship with the funding agency is also key. There has been a considerable improvement in the understanding of the health boards of the type of services provided by voluntary services; this was not always the case.

One of the challenges facing National Federation member is to renew and reinvigorate the voluntary ethos of our organisations. This is the International year of the Volunteer, but it seems obvious that our volunteers are a greying population. The pressures of modern society mean that a great many couples are both working outside the home, and this puts pressures on the time available for volunteering. Religious communities have diminishing numbers and these orders face a new challenge to deliver on this mission within the intellectual disability sector. However, there is a genuine energy and enthusiasm within our sector to try and improve the range and quality of services available to people with intellectual disability.

Our sector has also engaged in pioneering work abroad—a practical example of this is seen in the work of John O’Gorman in Bulgaria, with the enthusiastic assistance of several Irish voluntary service providers and their staff. This is an element of volunteering which is not widely publicised; it has the central guiding point of the dignity of the human being.

Reform and change are central to the mission, ethos and values of the voluntary sector in intellectual disability services in Ireland.

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Violet Gill reminisced with Mary de Paor about her three decades of voluntary involvement with St Michael's House.

Violet Gill has only given up her direct involvement with St Michael’s House in the last few years—you might say she’s finally taken ‘voluntary retirement [would redundancy be better?]’. She served the organisation as a volunteer from 1963, on the Board of Management for nearly thirty years, and as chairman of the board. She was also a member of the Board of Cheeverstown House in its early days. In 1995 her long service to the Irish learning disability community was acknowledged with the award of Honorary Life Membership of NAMHI.

Violet Gill was ‘conscripted’ into the work of St Michael’s House through her life-long friend Irene Richardson, with whom she also worked in the St John’s Ambulance brigade. It was 1963, and Irene had recently been hired, at a wage of £8 per week, to manage the special school in the large house on Grosvenor Road, Rathgar, which St Michael’s House had bought when it outgrew its rooms on Northbrook Road. Irene phoned Violet one morning: ‘Look, could you get over here? I have 30 children and I need help to make soup and sandwiches for them.’ Violet answered the summons, but she admits that her first reaction was not very auspicious. ‘I saw all those little things who looked exactly alike—they were all children with Down Syndrome, and they looked identical to me then. I thought, “I can’t cope with this at all.” Irene shrugged and said, “Grand, I’ll see you next week then.”‘

And that’s how it started. Violet kept on helping at Grosvenor Road for 23 years, in her ‘spare time’. The children soon became personalities to her and she got to know their parents, and their problems. St Michael’s was one of the first services, if not the first, to offer day-care facilities, and they had a long waiting list. Most of the work was done on a voluntary basis. Dublin Corporation provided sandwiches and milk for the children, but when the volunteers saw the contents of the sandwiches—a sort of a bright pink, jelly-sort of meat—they decided it wasn’t suitable. Irene did battle and eventually extracted the equivalent money from the Corporation (6d per child per day, perhaps). They went to the market and got friendly with the local butcher—and they were able to provide nourishing hot meals for the children. A rota of volunteers prepared the meals. They made a great team and before long they were also organising entertainments, catering for the opening of a new unit …..

The St Michael’s House Toy, developed in the 1970s, was one of Violet’s pet projects. A range of sturdy educational toys were bought—that meant more fundraising, of course—and the service was much in demand from families who could borrow a succession of toys for their young children with special needs. By the 1990s, most Irish households could provide their own toys and there was no longer the same need for the toy library here—so Violet sensibly suggested that the toys should be sent where such a need was still evident. The entire toy stock was boxed up and transported to Bulgaria, as an adjunct to NAMHI’s Adams Fund and the work of the new day services being developed by the Bulgarian Parents and Friends groups.

A project to compile the history of Dublin’s St Michael’s House is now underway. Violet hopes that many of the important stories have not already been lost. ‘It’s very late because so few of the people who remember St Michael’s, and were there, at the beginning are still around.’

VOLUNTEERISM, THEN AND NOW

Violet acknowledges that services have had to adapt to dramatic changes over the past decade. Many of them are big business now—’Where we were talking about pounds in my day at St Michael’s, now you’re talking about millions.’ She recognises the necessity for the funding and for the professionalism of services now, but she adds a slight caution: ‘Once you lose the voluntary element, you lose a lot of the human face, you know. I think that is terribly important. In the early days we knew the parents, and we knew their problems. They would come to the school in the morning with the children, and if they had a problem they had the chance to talk about it…. I don’t think that exists now to the same extent—the personal contact. Now, everybody has a mobile phone…’

It was a different time in the 1960s, when Violet Gill became involved with the early St Michael’s House. In those days of the ‘marriage bar’, there was no question of her keeping her job after her marriage, and she says that with one child she had time ‘to do interesting things’—and she has certainly done so!

Reassuringly, Violet believes that the ‘urge to volunteer’ is transmitted from generation to generation. She cites the examples of the Chernobyl Children’s charities, technicians who help in rescue programmes after a natural disaster, and the health and development aid workers in Africa. She believes that volunteerism continues to appear wherever there is great need: ‘I think voluntary help is alive and well—no doubt about that.’

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by Jenny Myles, Work Options

Since 2000, service users of Work Options (St Michael’s House Services in Dublin) have had the opportunity to get involved in volunteering. All service users work part-time in supported employment and are involved in training and leisure activities in Work Options during their free time. Volunteering was introduced as another dimension of the world of work—one where the motivations isn’t money, but less tangible and more personal rewards. Volunteering was also viewed as a way to build people’s understanding of commitment. Many elements of the process of supported employment were easily transferred to the process of volunteering by service users.

Voluntary work is based on trust and goodwill. It is work—there is a task to be done and, in agreeing to take it on, a volunteer is taking responsibility for that task. The host organisation also takes on responsibility towards the volunteer. Although the work is unpaid, the same commitment is required of both sides as would be expected in any other work situation. Neither can oblige the other to play their part—but each trusts the integrity of the other.

People with learning disabilities are used to being on the receiving end of services. They are unused to having their contribution genuinely valued by the wider community and they may have only limited experience of community involvement. Our hope was that through volunteering, people would see how they could use their existing skills to contribute to other people’s happiness and experience feeling valued for what they bring. A further aim was to give people the chance to see new places and meet new people, so voluntary work which involved a group of service users working on a task in isolation, such as envelope stuffing—was avoided.

Over time, a wide variety of motivations for and benefits of volunteering for service users has become apparent—a chance to help people, confidence building, meaningful occupation at times of unemployment, preparation for work (learning generic and specific work skills), trying out a new work area, developing an understanding of commitment, confirming to someone that they do have useful skills, meeting new people, broadening knowledge of the wider community, giving, not taking, being valued.

Many service users had already been volunteers, without realising it. Within Work Options, volunteers work in the canteen and on the phones/reception during breaks and afternoons. Without their help, these essential functions would not be fulfilled. In their home communities, some people also carry out tasks for the benefit of other people, e.g. delivering parish papers. In Work Options, volunteering was defined as ‘working for free to help other people’, and new volunteer opportunities began to be developed.

The first volunteer action which Work Options service users undertook in the community involved helping out at the Cavan Centre—an outdoor activity centre where groups had previously gone on highly enjoyable courses. Six service users and two staff members spent a weekend digging a MBX track and sanding down boats, in preparation for the centre’s summer season. In return, food, accommodation, sports facilities and traditional music were provided.

The process of setting up subsequent volunteering opportunities in Dublin was facilitated by Ann Crowe, the Volunteer Placement Officer at the Volunteer Resource Centre in Coleraine House. She matches the needs of a bank of organisations in Dublin looking for volunteers with the interests and capabilities of potential volunteers. In November 1999, we began to look into the options for ongoing supported group volunteer opportunities in Dublin. As a new concept, this took some time to set up. Ann came into Work Options to talk about volunteering.

From May to July 2000, a group of four service users visited St Mary’s Hospital (Phoenix Park) on Thursday mornings, to sell hospital lotto tickets around the wards. They were accompanied by a staff member who modelled appropriate behaviour and set up the task in a way that service users could learn to do independently.

At the same time, a project was set up at St mary’s in collaboration with VSI. For two weeks in June, international volunteers worked with eight Work Options service users in renovating outbuildings to make a day activity centre and tea room. Service users worked for three days per week, leaving two days for the other volunteers to concentrate on more complex tasks. This was a great success. Service users particularly liked the chance to meet people from other countries, to help the elderly patients, and to eat the fantastic meals which the hospital laid on! Service users also prepared a file of tourist information for the foreign VSI volunteers and invited them to visit Work Options and discuss supported employment.

Group volunteering helped to build confidence and encourage teamwork, but it was easy for some individuals to feel that the rest of the group would carry the task for them, if they didn’t turn up because something more exciting cropped up on the day. Giving each person a specific role underlined their own responsibility and importance in the project, but that didn’t wholly overcome this poor sense of commitment and the staff member involved felt that responsibility for the work was largely devolving on themselves by default. As a result, during 2001 the focus has been more on individual supported volunteering, or co-volunteering by two people.

For group volunteering, the project was presented and service users were ‘recruited’. In contrast, personal interest drives individual volunteer placements. The process, coordinated by a staff member, is as follows:

  • Service user expresses an interest in volunteering.
  • Service user’s interests and availability are noted.
  • Coodrinator contacts Ann Crowe to discuss options.
  • Service user may go for a chat with Ann.
  • Ann and/or coordinator contacts possible host organisation and may meet with them.
  • Service user prepares questions to ask and meets host organisation
  • Times/ tasks, supervision and trial period (usually 4 weeks) are agreed
  • A brief agreement is drawn up, outlining each party’s commitment and responsibilities
  • Service user works for a trial period and a decision is made whether to continue.

At all stages, the service user is supported as required. This may include initial job-coaching. Once the placement is established, the host organisation deals directly with the volunteer as far as possible, but can call on their supporter at any time. Voluntary work has up to now been carried out during centre hours (usually one afternoon per week) and volunteers are covered by the centre’s insurance, as they would be during other activities.

Current volunteers

Nicole Redmond works at the Cystic Fibrosis Shop on Capel Street on Friday mornings. She works front-of-shop and on the till. Nicole chose this placement because she wanted to see what working in a charity shop is like, and to help sick people. She likes meeting people. This placement began as a co-volunteering placement for four people—working in pairs (for confidence) for two half-days. After the trial period, two of the people left to do a training course and one left because she found shop work didn’t suit her.

Dermot Hetherton works for the Society of St Vincent de Paul at the Ozanam Centre, on Monday afternoons. He wanted a physical job and he loads and unloading bags of clothing from lorries and helps in the smooth running of the warehouse.

Angela Kirwan and Susan Kennedy organised a coffee morning and sold daffodils to raise money for Daffodil Day. They both knew people with cancer and decided they wanted to help the Irish Cancer Society.

Brian Goggins is going to do office work for a charity in Dublin

From the Work Options experience of supporting volunteering, the following issues have arisen:

  • Setting up a volunteer placement took longer than anticipated (up to 2 months or more).
  • An individual must be able to understand the commitment they are making.
  • It is essential that appreciation for the work done comes from the host organisation.
  • There are inevitable stereotypes and preconceptions to be overcome in some host organisations—before supported volunteers can be successfully placed. The ‘Isn’t she/he great!’ factor still exists, as do fears of unpredictable behaviour. The attitudes and assumptions of coworkers will affect whether a placement is a positive and personally satisfying experience for the volunteer. The Volunteer Resource Centre is currently looking at ways to raise awareness and dispel myths about the marginalised groups from which many volunteers come.
  • The need for support, and who is to provide it, needs further exploration. When support is provided by unit staff, on top of their usual workload, the possibilities are limited—the number of volunteers who can be facilitated and the degree and duration of support. Out-of-hours voluntary opportunites would require other support. Perhaps parents could get involved—or perhaps a friend or relative of similar age. Perhaps co-volunteering with someone outside the learning disability service might also be explored.

0 205

Tom Hogan is Chairman of the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies (and Chief Executive of the Galway Association). This article is extracted from his address to the Federation at their Conference in Galway in May, 'The future role of the voluntary sector in the provision of intellectual disability services'.

Voluntary organisations have provided services to persons with an intellectual disability in Ireland since 1868. They now account for approximately eighty per cent of intellectual disability services within the Republic. The voluntary sector has played a pioneering role in the development of services and has been innovative in responding to changing needs. The 49 voluntary service providers who are members of the National Federation are organisations which are non-statutory, self-governing, of benefit to the public, and not-for-profit (as differentiated from the private sector). Some members are religious organisations, others are incorporated by charter or under companies legislation. Most of them include the involvement of parents, with volunteers as an important element of their make-up.

What makes voluntary organisations different? Firstly, our Federation members are single-focus organisations. Health boards have a wide brief to deliver a vast range of services to the public. Our member organisations focus solely on the provision of services for people with intellectual disability. This single focus has inevitably meant that a great deal of expertise has been built up which is widely shared among our members. We are innovative in our approach to the design and delivery of services. Our services are more labour intensive than hospital services; this is reflected in a strong commitment to staff training and development.

Many of our activities retain a voluntary nature. In my own organisation, for example, the Board of Directors (a widely representative group composed of parents, friends and community representatives) provide their time and input to the organisation free of charge and they ensure the highest standards of corporate governance. Volunteers actively participate in many elements of our service provision—swimming, horse riding, social outings, befriending, etc. A third strand of voluntary activity is fundraising—notwithstanding the increase in exchequer funding made available to agencies over the past few years, many projects still depend on fundraising activities for seed capital or top-up funding.

The Federation has been in existence since around 1970, but the negotiations arising from the implementation of the 1994 Health Strategy galvanised the membership into a much more cohesive group. We have developed good working relationships with the Department of Health and Children and with the health boards (although we would wish for speedier implementation of the recommendations of Enhancing the Partnership, particularly in relation to the Consultative and Development Committees). We have engaged in discussions wit NAMHI and the National Parents and Siblings Alliance, with whom we have launched media campaigns to highlight the need for additional revenue and capital to put services in place for those who are without them—much remains to be done. A new Health Strategy is due to be launched this summer. We expect that the document will reinforce the commitment to the voluntary sector and acknowledge its achievements and plans for better services and the elimination of waiting lists.

The nature of our work makes partnership imperative to its success. Our first partnership is with those in our care. Unlike the hospital sector, the relationship of a service provider in the intellectual disability sector with a person who is referred to it is likely to be a lifetime relationship. If a child is referred to an agency at perhaps five years of age, that individual may well be availing of services from the agency for up to sixty years, or even longer. The relationship with that person and his family is key. Naturally, our relationship with the funding agency is also key. There has been a considerable improvement in the understanding of the health boards of the type of services provided by voluntary services; this was not always the case.

One of the challenges facing National Federation member is to renew and reinvigorate the voluntary ethos of our organisations. This is the International year of the Volunteer, but it seems obvious that our volunteers are a greying population. The pressures of modern society mean that a great many couples are both working outside the home, and this puts pressures on the time available for volunteering. Religious communities have diminishing numbers and these orders face a new challenge to deliver on this mission within the intellectual disability sector. However, there is a genuine energy and enthusiasm within our sector to try and improve the range and quality of services available to people with intellectual disability.

Our sector has also engaged in pioneering work abroad—a practical example of this is seen in the work of John O’Gorman in Bulgaria, with the enthusiastic assistance of several Irish voluntary service providers and their staff. This is an element of volunteering which is not widely publicised; it has the central guiding point of the dignity of the human being.

Reform and change are central to the mission, ethos and values of the voluntary sector in intellectual disability services in Ireland.