A Place to 'Be' and a Place to 'Do'
Ros can feel herself recharging, like a battery. Albeit a battery that never really gets enough time in the charger. As the kids go into the creche she can feel her body unwind, the tension seeping from her muscles, the breath creep from her lungs and she flops on to one of the couches. She can see the myriad activity around her but she just wants stillness.4- Some parents catch up on things when their kids are in the creche, they write letters, or fill in forms or call people. She catches up on her stillness and, as it envelopes her, she finds some clarity returning to the thoughts that fleetingly penetrate her mind. And she likes the stillness she gets here—a kind of stillness in the middle of a storm of activity. She cant feel stillness when there’s silence around her, just loneliness and yearning for something. But here in the centre with people talking, groups happening, she can get a stillness in the world. If she’s not managed to eat for a while it gets pretty hard to get to that stillness because you can’t lose the agitation of real hunger but she loads up on the cheap lunch and that helps.
The centre allows different people to understand themselves differently at different time points, sometimes receiving help, sometimes giving it.5 In one sense, the BUCFP resembles healthy living centres like Bromley by Bow6 in terms of the range of creative and healthy living classes that are on offer. However, one key difference is in the ethos, the ‘feel’ of the centre, and the ways in which paid workers, volunteers and centre users interact. The central focus of many healthy living centres is to position centre users in such a way that they actively take responsibility for their own lives6 or are manoeuvred into active projects of self-work. In this sense, the centre differs. For some of the people who come to the centre, people who actively seek support and assistance in specific ways, for instance with regard to employment or education, the centre is undoubtedly well equipped to provide support. However, it is not incumbent on centre users that they must in some sense use the centre to move towards a preordained endpoint that they may not currently, or indeed ever be, ready to move towards.
Volunteering is one pathway and activity in the day-to-day running of the centre and there is literature that outlines the different ways in which people can benefit from volunteering.7
The honest truth is that Lilly didn’t really fancy becoming a volunteer. She didn’t really know much about the centre but felt it was full of too many people who wouldn’t take responsibility for their own lives. Lilly was trying to do just that. After months stuck indoors and a period of inpatient treatment, she wanted to try to get back on the mend but she knew she’d need a reference to get a job. People didn’t like giving jobs to nutters so she needed to build up a more endearing back story than ‘months smoking fags while her skin crawled’. That day she was on the front desk and was taking loads of calls, the phone was almost constant and she had people walking into the office with queries too. But she’d figured out a system to organise her time. It was nice when she got through a session without asking for help. It means she coped with it herself.
Not only are volunteers at the BUCFP able to learn new skills, which impact their confidence hugely,8 but the many volunteering opportunities at the centre like cooking, caring for children, educating others and administration in the office allow them to reconnect with old skills, abilities and habits, which may not have been used for a number of years following the difficulties that they have encountered. For some, there is a reawakening or a reconnection with previous capabilities and of previous ‘ways of being’ in their neighbourhoods and communities:
I was suffering from depression, from being poor and, sort of, alienated, and so I can only, best example is to use myself. When I started coming here it changed my whole outlook on my situation, realising that ‘God, you can get involved, you can do this, you can do that’ and going home thinking ‘Oh that was really, you know...’ and that was, I, self-worth, you know, going home thinking ‘Oh, I made a little bit of a difference today’, you know what I mean? (Participant 3, trustee)
Volunteering not only helps people gain in confidence and reassess their perceptions of themselves and their abilities, but it also provides a regular structure to challenge the debilitating isolation that many centre users have experienced. Indeed as the Institute for Volunteering research shows, volunteering acts as a point of social contact, a source of friendships and an opportunity to work as a team.9
For a number of the people who regularly attend the centre and volunteer, their activities and labour at the centre lead directly to employment opportunities. The experience of volunteering, of coming to understand the contribution that they can make through the eyes of other people in the centre, helps them to develop a sense of self-worth.10 Volunteering can help to mobilise such a fundamental change as regaining a sense of personhood and citizenship, not through specialised professional interventions but through working in a meaningful way with other people who are often in similar circumstances.
So I did the Council-run training, which is held here, the welfare rights training, and that gave me the skills to become a welfare rights volunteer.
So then I did that for over, for nearly a year, I think, that’s a rough date so I can’t remember exactly, and then through the experience of being a welfare rights volunteer I got my current job, so I was two-and-a-half years unemployed (Participant 3, trustee)