This time last year, Neighbourly was in the midst of launching its first ever virtual volunteering programme, connecting employees from partner businesses across the country with local good causes to support with everything from marketing and finance to virtual workshops for young people.
Beth Underwood, B Corp Manager at Danone Dairies, was one of first to jump at the opportunity to volunteer and was connected with two good causes - supporting those struggling with their mental health via Dorset Mind, and as a befriender for Greenwich Hospice - where she was matched with Lasmin.
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To celebrate all that volunteers do during Volunteer’s Week, we caught up with Beth one year on from starting her journey as a virtual volunteer befriender - just as an ease in lockdown restrictions meant she was able to meet Lasmin in person for the very first time.
“[Virtual volunteering] has given me a real sense of purpose”
Here’s what Beth has to say about becoming a remote volunteer during the pandemic and why she thinks it's something others should consider.
Neighbourly: What is your main takeaway from the experience of being a volunteer befriender through Danone's employee volunteering programme?
Beth Underwood: Volunteering virtually throughout the pandemic has been a really rewarding experience. It’s definitely given me a real sense of purpose.
My family and friends thought I was a bit mad when I signed up to two long-term volunteering programmes (Dorset Mind and Greenwich & Bexley Community Hospice) this time last year, as my job was really busy at that time, but for me it was a great way to switch off from work and focus on something else.
My biggest takeaway is that volunteering has actually helped me feel less stressed and less overwhelmed by my to-do list.
NB: What are the benefits and challenges of volunteering from home?
BU: The benefits of virtual volunteering are that you do not even have to move from your sofa and you can be making a massive difference to someone else's day.
Prior to the pandemic, I liked the idea of doing regular volunteering in person, but I think I would've found this difficult to maintain, and a little exhausting alongside commuting to work and back every day.
I often complete my volunteering on the phone whilst on a walk, so that I'm getting fresh air and exercise at the same time. The personal benefits of long-term volunteering are that you can make a bigger impact on a cause you believe in (for me mental health and loneliness).
The challenge with any sort of volunteering is time management. There definitely have been days where I’ve been tempted to reschedule a call, but I’ve tried to avoid this as much as possible as I think stability is important for people suffering from mental illness or loneliness.
NB: What has kept you motivated to continue and what do you feel are the benefits of long-term over short-term volunteering?
BU: One-off team volunteering days are great and you can make a huge difference to charities using your combined skills. However, since school when I used to do a lot of volunteering in the local care home, I've always preferred the idea of longer-term individual volunteering. The biggest personal benefit to long-term volunteering is that you gain soft skills including communication.
“When we talk [Lasmin] makes me laugh a lot… which always brightens my mood.”
With longer-term volunteering, you also have the opportunity to build strong relationships with people outside of your normal social bubble. I’ve loved learning Lasmin’s perspective on things like racism, Jamaican food, working for the army, working as an intensive care nurse, and US politics.
It hasn’t taken anything to be motivated to continue speaking to Lasmin, she is so flexible around when we talk and she makes me laugh a lot every week which always brightens my mood. When I talk to Lasmin now it feels more like chatting to a very interesting friend, not a volunteering client.
It's taken a little more motivation to continue being a befriender for Dorset Mind as it requires more brain power to complete the more structured goal-setting program. Dorset Mind requires you to track your progress every week and update the team on your client.
However, Dorset Mind provides amazing services to support their befriender volunteers – often facilitating learning sessions, creating a buddy system so that you always have someone to speak to, and making you feel part of a team with weekly newsletters.
NB: What does it mean to you to have finally met Lasmin face to face?
BU: It was quite a surreal experience. We had both seen just one photo of each other, but we immediately said that each other were exactly as we had imagined.
Seeing Lasmin face to face was just as easy and comfortable as it was speaking to her over the phone every week for the last year so any nerves disappeared straight away. Lasmin said she couldn’t sleep as she was so excited to have a visitor and kept saying how happy she was to see me which made it all worth it.
“[Virtual volunteering] makes me feel valued, important and helpful”
When we went to the shops together, I loved seeing how Lasmin knew everyone in her community and was making everyone laugh as she went about buying her food. I didn’t realise this at the time but she was also buying one of everything for me, so as I left she also handed me her favourite Caribbean foods to try.
When I left Lasmin was upset which also made me sad as I realised how much the visit and calls meant to her. I've promised her we'll arrange another date for me to go and visit again and of course continue the weekly calls.
NB: Would you encourage others to get involved in employee volunteering?
BU: I couldn't recommend it more, volunteering as an employee alongside your day job. It makes you feel valued, important and helpful. When you've had a bad day it's so nice to talk to someone completely outside of your family, friends and work life and just hear about their life and not think about what's going on in your world for half an hour.
It's a perfect opportunity to practice the art of listening. I usually only ask questions whilst volunteering and it is quite a 'one way' conversation but for me that's the bit I like the most. It's really energising to have a conversation like this.
As well as being a rewarding and affirming experience for Beth, having someone to talk to and build a friendship with during the pandemic has had a huge impact on Lasmin, the patient at Greenwich Hospice who was matched with Beth last year.
After meeting Beth for the first time, Lasmin said: “After speaking to Beth on the phone for a year, I wondered if I would ever meet her. I was so happy when we planned that she would come and see me at home and I am not embarrassed to say I shed a few tears.
“Everything has been so out of the ordinary because of the pandemic and Beth has been just the sort of person that a patient needs. She is one of the nicest people I have ever met and I am looking forward to seeing her again soon.”
Huge thanks to Beth for taking the time to share her experience of remote volunteering and befriending over the last year. To stay up-to-date with the latest stories, case studies and research from Neighbourly, follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn.
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