So what's it like volunteering in outreach work? Here's an interview with Kirsty, who volunteers for Safe and Sound; and a piece by Lesley, who worked with women and girls.
An interview with Kirsty, a student volunteering with Safe and Sound, Derby as an outreach worker...
Deborah: I know you're currently studying for a degree. What subject are you studying? What topics are you finding most interesting?
Kirsty: I'm studying for a BA (Hons) in Crime and Justice at the University of Derby and I'm in my second year at the moment. My academic interests focus on young people. Over the last year I've written 3 essays about young people - looking at their treatment in prison, their victimisation in secondary schools (specifically how it is ignored), and the sexual harassment they encounter. I've decided to do my dissertation next year on how young people feel about the stereotypes that are linked to them, specifically looking at those which presume that they commit a lot of crime or are generally anti-social. It will be an ethnographic piece - I'll talk to young people while I'm doing outreach sessions for Safe and Sound.
D: Tell me how you first got involved with Safe and Sound?
K: I found out about Safe and Sound through the annual volunteer fair at the university in November. I went along to the fair because my course leader was, and remains to be, very enthusiastic about his students getting involved in more than just what the course and university has to offer. Countless times he's reminded us all that even with having a degree in Crime and Justice with all its applied elements, we will still be competing against other graduates who have a similar degree. Therefore he has recommended that we all try to get more experience of the 'real' world so then we have that knowledge, and skills of being a criminal practitioner as our kind of secret weapon for job interviews.
There were many agencies and charities from Derby City looking for volunteers but what made me choose Safe and Sound Derby was the fact that I was interested in their issues but more importantly that I could see the workers actually cared about the young people they worked with or met on outreach; they were not just concerned with getting larger numbers for more funding.
The role that was available to me as a volunteer was the position of outreach worker. One of their volunteers was present at the fair so I took the opportunity to talk with her. The enthusiasm and passion that she displayed made me eager to be a part of it and I felt that the role as an outreach worker was an incredibly worthwhile role to get stuck in to. This was because I felt strongly for young people's needs and rights and that remains with me even now, so it was nice to know that I would be someone who a young person could talk to if they needed to.
The application process was not hard but it did require some thought as to why I wanted to be a volunteer, what I could offer as a volunteer and what I hoped to get out of it. Once Diane from Safe and Sound Derby had received this I was invited for an informal chat so that I could become more familiar with the role and so that Diane could see whether I would be an ideal volunteer. Once that was over, it was a case of filling in some forms and working out some dates in my diary for the training sessions.
D: Tell me about the training sessions?
K: The four training sessions, led by Diane, covered the role of an outreach worker and what I was expected to do within that role and how I could achieve that. Then over at least two of the sessions Diane discussed with us the 'grooming' process for both boys and girls, as it was important to Diane to make me aware that they were very different but had some commonalities. Both of those sessions were very interesting but also very shocking to me because it showed me how clever and sneaky people can be to get what they want, but more disturbing were the effects these processes had on the young person. The training was delivered through a variety of methods including video, posters, discussion, games and flow charts. The last session was going over all the legal jargon about working with young people so that we could be aware of boundaries when working with young people.
D: What was your first day as a volunteer like?
K: My first outreach session was with Diane and another volunteer who had been with the project for a year. We went to one of the hot spots in the city where young people tend to hang out in the evenings. We wandered around this estate and found some of our regular young people near a local shop under a lamp post just chatting with each other. I distinctly remember the conversation because it was about those scientists who were trying to re-create the 'Big Bang' and some of the young people were worried about what could happen to earth and human existence. So we talked about it with them and we tried to put their minds at ease. This was one of the more unusual conversations that we sometimes have on outreach but our role remained the same in that we were there as someone they could talk to about whatever they wanted. From that session what I found most interesting was how it actually was not that difficult to walk up to a group of young people and talk to them. My fear was that I would find it hard to engage with young people or that I would be too scared to approach them. Now looking back at that session has made me realise just how ridiculous and silly it was to be scared of them because they were just like I was when I was younger. They were people, not these knife-bearing monsters the media makes them out to be. It is because of that initial perception I had that I am so thankful I started volunteering not only because it has opened up a wealth of opportunities for me career-wise but because I know there was no need for me to be scared in that situation and the more young people that I have spoken to and had the honour of meeting the more I feel passionate about fighting for their needs to be recognised more. I have so much respect for them and because I don't talk down to them, I talk to them as a person, they have much respect for me and you can tell that because the young people relax around you, they act like themselves. So many of them have said to us on outreach how much they enjoy us coming round to see them in their local area. There have been occasions where we have had 20-30 young people waiting for us to arrive so that they can tell us about what's going in their lives, whether it be a problem at school, how well they are doing in football, or what is most common - and that is asking us for advice about sexual health, drinking, smoking etc. I love what I do as a volunteer and I know that in small ways I do make a difference.
D: How has your involvement with Safe and Sound developed since you first started volunteering with them?
K: I've increasingly tried to do as much as I can for the project, not only to further my own experience but because I am committed to the work and I believe in what Safe and Sound stands for. Last year, I looked at a number of ways in which Safe and Sound could become better known within the community. I worked with Diane and we went to the Neighbourhood Forums, where we delivered short presentations about the work we do in those areas of the city. We felt it important that we introduce ourselves to the communities that we work in within Derby City, not only so that they were aware of the work we do but also for them to know who we are if they saw us to talking to young people in their area. It was crucial for us to get across who we were to parents because they would have taught their children not to talk to strangers and so we wanted to make ourselves identifiable to them so that they wouldn't worry about who we were. Safe and Sound Derby works around trying the protect vulnerable young people from sexual exploitation so it would be awful if some parents felt they couldn't allow their children out because they didn't know who we were.
Other events that I have been able to take part in are attending school parent induction evenings in which we spoke to the parents about the work we do in school with young people so that they are aware of the risks that are out there.
D: Looking back over your time so far with Safe and Sound, can you identify the main skills you've been able to develop while volunteering? Have these skills been of help to you with your work at university?
K: I would say that a key skill that I have been able to develop whilst on outreach is my knowledge and awareness of the issues that affect young people. In the first year of my degree I did a module about youth and crime. Whilst it was a good module and I learnt a lot from it, getting involved with outreach I realised that my perception of young people was always linked to crime and how they committed it. By having first hand experience with young people and the issues they discuss with us it has broadened my understanding of their needs and allowed me to see how they can be helped.
I have found that my confidence in presenting and meeting people I've not met before has taken a massive leap because I've had so much practice with outreach. I was able to prove my skills in a module called Applied Criminal Justice in which we were split into groups and my group had to do some research for Crimebeat about diversion activities. As part of this research we had to interview a practitioner and due to the connections I had made with other agencies through volunteering I was able to line up two interviews and I conducted one of them myself. One of our assessments for this project was to present our report to a board which included three members of the academic team at university, a police trainer from Derbyshire Constabulary, a member from Derby YOT and someone from Crimebeat. Within the presentation it was my role to introduce our project so I was a little nervous about that but also confident because I had done many presentations before. Afterwards, I received feedback from the police trainer and an academic who both said that I came across as very confident and because of that I was able to deliver the information clearly and in a way that it could be understood. If I hadn't have done presentations with Diane and taken on the advice she had given me I would never have been able to do that as well as I did.
D: Would you encourage students to get involved in volunteering while they're at university?
K: As a Student Ambassador at my university I always get asked about volunteering and work experience opportunities by prospective students and I always advise them to get involved in something outside of their studies to compliment their learning because it will open many doors for them as it has for me.
One fear that many of them have is about whether they will be able to fit it around their studies and I would say that it is possible to do that. I know how tense university can get, especially towards the end of terms when assignments need to be handed in and so that is where the skill to manage your time properly comes into play. If you schedule in one session of volunteering per week then you will find that you can also fit a part-time job in your schedule with enough time for study and socialising too. That is what I do and it works well for me. In the holidays I try to do as many sessions as I can to show I'm committed and also because I enjoy it.
D: Do you think you'll continue volunteering once you've finished university?
K: I will definitely continue to volunteer once I have graduated.
D: And what about the future? What do you plan to do for a career after you finish university?
K: Gosh, I have so many things that I would love to do after university. If I had the money I would continue studying the effects that stereotyping has on young people and go straight onto doing my PhD, but at the moment that is not an option for me with my wedding less than two years away. However, I would love to work for Safe and Sound Derby, I feel so passionate about everything they do for young people and feel it is important to continue their work and taking it further. Failing that I will be on the look-out for similar jobs and if I can't find any then my other passion is to become a crime analyst for the British Transport Police.
My voluntary work will be able to help me with finding a job because I have a wealth of experience with young people which will be very advantageous but it will also show employers that I have done something more than just study crime and justice, I actually got involved.
And here's Lesley's account of doing outreach work with a different organisation...
After my degree, I was doing a dead end job to make ends meet when an article in my local paper leapt out at me. It was a new project that had been set up to help adults and children. I gave them a call immediately and arranged to see them... This was to lead to my eventually working there in a paid position.
The work was different to volunteer work I had done before my degree. I thought volunteering was when you took a tin around and asked for money. This was much more involved and complex than that. I wanted to help other women and girls who found themselves in an oppressive situation and wanted support making their way through that or help getting out. It actually resonated with my own life's meaning and goals.
I chose to work with the adult side of the project, although later I worked with young people as well, and within a year was helping to run street outreach and drop-in sessions with other volunteers - as a paid project worker.
On "street outreach" two women would go out in someone's car around the areas where women worked. We would park up, trying not to get in the way of business, and offer things like flasks of hot chocolate, chocolate bars and condoms. We got to know the women this way, and we could give our cards out, so they knew how to contact us, and where our drop-ins were.
The drop-ins were a chance to talk about anything more in-depth, and we could arrange to meet up one to one to deal with anything the women wanted help with. This could be getting help for substance misuse problems, or housing, or sometimes just to take time out from the drugs and work to have a coffee, window shop, and talk.
We also arranged day trips out - again, respite from the constant heaviness of the same-old same-old - the routine of work and drugs.
There were some really sad times, like when one woman was murdered by her boyfriend. And a lot of women have had really tragic stressful lives. I really put my all into doing what I could do to help amidst all that.
At the project, there was some potential to progress in the hierarchy if I wanted to, but I decided to move on into other areas, but my experience there as a volunteer got me out of my post-degree dead end job and into the kind of value based work I wanted to do.