“Volunteering” derives from the Middle French word voluntaire, meaning one who offers himself for military service. Since the 17th century the term has been used in a non-military sense and is now understood to mean the offering of services for no financial gain to assist others. Importantly, it is accepted that the volunteer should also benefit in some way from this transaction. It may offer the chance to develop skills, prepare for possible paid employment and confer social advantages such as making friends and promoting well-being.
Volunteering has recently adopted a high profile: for instance the purple-clad Gamesmakers at the 2012 Olympics played a major part in the success of the Games, while the concept of “The Big Society” – or communities working together – is popular with politicians. The UK boasts one of the highest rates of volunteering in the world. In 2014, 27% of adults claimed to take part in a voluntary activity at least once a month.
The Peace Hospice recognised the key role of volunteers from the outset. There were hardly any paid staff in the early days, and every penny raised was needed for getting the Hospice up and running. So, volunteer supporters played a crucial role. Early volunteers were recruited to work in the fundraising office, as shop assistants in the first Watford shop, in the Day Care centre established in a portacabin in the Peace Memorial car park, as drivers to ferry patients to the day centre and as fundraisers of all sorts. Some of those early volunteers went on to be employed by the Hospice, and a few are still active today.
The Hospice now has about 620 volunteers carrying out about 50 different roles which means there is literally something to suit everyone. About half of the volunteers work in Trading – sorting stock in the warehouse and trading on eBay as well as supporting the Hospice’s shops. Each shop needs a team of up to 30 volunteers, working under a paid manager, to fill the daily shifts and cover for holidays and other absences. The shop teams become very close-knit and often develop firm friendships.
30% of the volunteers undertake clinical roles, which may require specialist skills or training. This can involve assisting the nurses in the Inpatient Unit, working alongside the Day Care staff as a trained therapist, or with the Bereavement and Spiritual Care staff as an adviser or counsellor. The remainder of the volunteers work for the Hospice’s support services, which include fundraising, finance, Human Resources, administration and facilities. This includes volunteer gardeners who tend the Hospice’s much-admired garden, drivers, flower arrangers, receptionists and administration assistants. There are also a number of all-rounders who do everything from acknowledging donations and appraising coin and stamp donations to stuffing envelopes and running errands.
Some volunteers prefer to work with their neighbours and friends as part of the local support groups which organise a variety of fundraising events on behalf of the Hospice. Others combine with their workplace colleagues to offer practical help, such as redecorating a shop or re-organising the warehouse. Many young volunteers get involved while taking part in the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, which includes a compulsory Volunteering section. Recently the Hospice has been involved in the Herts Neighbours scheme. The scheme matches individuals who are at the end of life or living with a life-limiting illness with volunteer visitors to their homes.
Nowadays, the Hospice adopts a more professional and formalised approach to the recruitment of its volunteers. There is a conscious effort to pinpoint the skills and abilities of prospective volunteers, and place them where they can best support paid employees. Volunteers undergo an induction and receive training appropriate to their role. They are kept informed and involved with the workings of the Hospice, and invited to an annual Volunteers’ social gathering. The aim is to instill a sense of ownership and make the volunteers feel valued.
After 25 years, the Hospice volunteer army continues to flourish. Men and women of all ages offer their time and expertise in a bewildering variety of roles. Some have been involved for many years, while others are new to the team. Each volunteer has their own personal reasons for wanting to help, but all share the knowledge that they are making a positive and valuable contribution to a hugely worthwhile cause.
This post is part of information gathered during Peace Hospice Care’s oral histories project 2014-16. The project captured 25 years of Peace Hospice Care and explored the legacy of the Peace Memorial Hospital. It was funded by the Heritage Lottery Foundation.
Find out more about Peace Hospice Care by visiting www.peacehospicecare.org.uk or the online project archive http://ourview.peacehospicecare.org.uk/ Oral histories from the project will be deposited with Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies by end 2016.