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.


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