Worth Something – Volunteering and Recovery – Complimentary Journeys
”You feel that you’re worth something here. That you’re contributing to something”
People volunteer for all sorts of reasons. Maybe they are ex-professionals retired from work so do a couple of shifts at the local Citizen’s Advice Bureau? Maybe they are unemployed and looking for a way back to work? (although, that one may be a little problematic, as we’ll see). Volunteering gets you out of the house (lockdowns excepted!). It gets you back in the mix. It helps structure your days and weeks. If chosen right, it can be a low-pressure, stress-free way of making a contribution to an organization and gaining the reward of lending your skills and charming company.
And organization’s take on volunteers for all sorts of reasons. At CAB it may be for their expertise and their enthusiasm? Charity shops wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for an army of volunteers. You will find volunteers in hospices and hospitals as visitors, even counsellors. The NHS was helped enormously by volunteers during the Covid crisis.
What of folk in the recovery community? Those individuals battling addiction issues who maybe want to ‘test the waters’ of voluntary work. Are their factors at work that make volunteering more challenging? What are the barriers? Are there even greater rewards for people in this situation?
To research this we interviewed key staff, volunteer coordinators, managers in a number of organizations in the recovery sector and elsewhere to ask them their thoughts and such issues and also, what are the challenges and benefits of managing volunteers who are in recovery?
There are many volunteers performing a range of roles within the recovery sector itself. Many of these, but not all, have been and remain service users usually with the organization they themselves have used or one that provides a similar service. As we shall see, there is also scope in this sphere for those who wish to volunteer but do not necessarily have the ‘lived experience’ meaning they are not themselves in recovery. Also, there are of course many individuals who are in recovery but volunteer outside the recovery sector.
It is natural, in many ways, that folk choose to volunteer in an environment they are acquainted with and where they may feel safe and supported. Also, they may see that their progressive journey to recovery may be considered an asset in such as peer support, that their experience may be of some worth to those beginning their own journeys. There is great ‘reward’ in that for the potential volunteer and many agree, among managers of recovery organizations, that this ‘lived experience’ is indeed a great asset to their organization although this opinion is not universal and clear-cut. One told us…
“Our clients have fed back that they see lived experience as a good thing. They may find them easier to relate to as they have gone through similar experiences, can identify with similar triggers and urges.”
While another offered the view…
“Peers are great for ‘You don’t know what it’s like, but I do, I’ve been there,’ but that may last 6 months and then after that you’ve got nothing in common apart from that. We match people up with who we think will get on and the fact that someone is talking to someone completely separate from the problem throws them much more into solutions.” Rowan
Indeed, it is viewed by some practitioners that placing service users with non-lived experience befrienders and supporters can prove more beneficial…
“Regarding elaborating on the peer volunteer issue. We recently matched a service user with a university student who is not a peer volunteer and she said it really helped her because she started growing trust with younger people as well as she felt she had really connected and she felt the younger person was not going to judge her but she said ‘I don’t want to burden her with my issues’ but I said no, she wants to be there for you, so she started to open up and have open conversations and she said it was amazing. So not having a peer volunteer was actually great. I haven’t had personal lived experience, but I have the experience of my father and I can have a conversation from a different perspective and later on a client thanked me because it made her think how her daughter might look on the situation.”
However, the specific role a volunteer plays may make a difference. With one Edinburgh recovery hub, volunteers can find themselves very much on the front line, perhaps distributing Naloxone or attending raves and concerts to be available for help and advice to those using substances. In terms of ‘breaking down barriers’ maybe a shared lived experience is beneficial.
“In the last year we’ve at least doubled the amount of Naloxone we’ve given people because of our peer volunteers. Because in the hubs you’re sitting there with CPNs and GPs and folk won’t take the Naloxone offered in case it gets fed back to social workers or whatever. Whereas out on the street all we need as an identifier off you, a date of birth and it doesn’t get fed back anywhere except public health and then they’ll take it.” CGL
It would be fair to say that all the agencies we spoke to agreed that a ‘mix’ of volunteers, and indeed staff in general, is what is ideal for service-users. One recovery agency told us a third of their front-line staff had lived experience while another described the split as fifty-fifty. Another told us…
“The best way to describe your ideal volunteer pool is that it should reflect the rest of your local community. You should have an age range. Your demographics should be a good mix of what you have in your community.” Rowan
The notion of having service-users involved in supporting others in recovery was not always one favoured by ‘professionals’ in the sector. One service-user who became a volunteer and is now a Peer Support Manager told us…
“We’ve had to prove ourselves. I’ve been involved with this peer support service for eight and a half years, from volunteer through to employment, and it’s only, say, in the last two and a half years that peer support has become acceptable. The nurse used to treat you like shit on your shoe. Now they see the benefits. Now they get feedback from the clients telling them and they see for themselves people moving forward.”
Peer support and front-line work are not the only areas where volunteers are utelised, of course. Another role could be such as fundraising, a vital area for an agency with charitable status. One senior figure in an organization working in homeless prevention and where a high number of their clients have addiction issues told us of one success story when it was discovered that one service-user living in their shared accommodation unit had an English degree and decided…
“…they’d be good at promoting the service. So, in writing for instance a grant application, they’re very good with their words. So he went and volunteered with them (the fundraising department) and actually ended up working with us. It was just wonderful to see that change and for that person then to move on. That department looked at his assets rather than the deficits.”
There are, of course, folk on their journey to recovery who prefer not to work in the recovery environment. Maybe they don’t always to be confronted with issues they can all too readily relate to or they wish to expand their skills and experience in other roles. Speaking to an-ex Volunteer and Inclusion Manager from an urban farm it is intriguing to learn that some have a wish to work with animals and find comfort in that arena.
“There’s a complete lack of judgement with animals. People came for the animals but actually gained social skills.”
We spoke to one volunteer who said he would find volunteering and working with people in recovery “too stressful” and gets much more reward from volunteering in a “more normal environment” where he could remove himself from thinking about his own issues and gain esteem and confidence elsewhere. A talented musician and good with words he has helped run music groups and creative writing classes. Although these groups have been with and for folk in recovery, they are concentrating on using the imaginations and, although there is mutual support, the central theme is not recovery.
Perhaps people with mental health and/or recovery issues which usually involve other issues such as family, finance and society generally gravitate to such as working with animals as it offers a safe escape from the troubles which they are otherwise confronted with. There have been positive reports, for instance, on the effects of dog ownership among prisoners in America.
Or maybe it’s the social environment that such as an urban farm creates. A happy atmosphere of delighted children where the work is all about the wellbeing of fellow creatures.
“People would volunteer in groups and I had individuals who would insist they were rubbish at conversing with people and it had to be pointed out instances when you’d noticed they’d gone out of their way to talk to a member of the public or chat to a child or do something that was not required of their role and you’d have to say, well, that’s communicating. You’d say, you realise that you’ve actually got that skill?”
Sometimes the setting is everything.
As you would expect, there is a high emphasis on supporting volunteers who are in recovery. It is universally accepted that being put under too much pressure or into the wrong role could have adverse consequences for individuals trying to emerge from dangerous addictions and back into more normal environments again. As a manager within an organization that has one thousand volunteers in Edinburgh alone put it’’
“It is very important not to set people up to fail!”
That organization like all the others have structures in place that aim to support volunteers be that a volunteer coordinator, a mentor or a buddy system. in one agency there is a supervisor for each volunteer…
“Volunteers get a supervision every six weeks and an appraisal every 12 weeks so they can sit down with their supervisor and say, well I like this part of it, is there any way I can get this sort of training because I would like to find out more about it? So, the supervisor is there to support volunteers and they can come to me.” CGL
It is considered of utmost importance that volunteers are not pushed too hard and too soon. This is particularly the case with volunteers who are in recovery. All are agreed that, in these instances, it is best to start in less stressful roles and maybe build up as you go on. At one agency this may be at ‘ad hoc’ events manning a stall for a couple of hours before even considering anything like peer support. A Drop-in Services Coordinator at another agency expressed it thus…
“It can be tricky for folk newly in recovery there is a lot of drive and wanting to do next steps and really it may be better to start them off in admin roles because we need to be really careful we’re not placing folk in stressful situations where there are triggers”
The perception of volunteering
Whilst the common perception may still be of elderly ladies in charity shops (or, more recently, assisting in food banks or shoring up staff shortages in beleaguered libraries) the reality is very different. Volunteering for many people is a route back to something and this is certainly the case for people in recovery from addictions. While continuing to explore the reasons for their reliance on drugs, alcohol, food, gambling or whatever else it is that has been harming them and holding them back they are re-entering a more normal and healthy way of life through offering their skills, energies and abilities to a productive end, not only for themselves but for the agency they engage with. That this volunteering very often leads to paid employment is the icing on the cake.
Perhaps of equal if not greater worth Is what people can gain in self-esteem, confidence, sense of connection. These ‘soft skills’ should not be underestimated amongst a community where lives and personalities were maybe damaged early, and affirmation is hard won.
One of the volunteers we spoke to says he now has qualifications in Dementia Awareness and Reminiscence Therapy and is a trained and experienced befriender to the elderly some of whom have Early-Stage Dementia.
What about office skills, IT, youth work, advocacy, community cafes, catering, gardening and that’s only for starters? Our volunteer worked with the elderly and partially sighted and also worked as a volunteer adviser with a welfare rights agency. And, in a town like Edinburgh post-pandemic there are a myriad of opportunities to volunteer at the Festival.
Volunteers can benefit from the extensive training that can be on offer. Within recovery agencies this can be about suicide prevention and trauma informed training.
“….the volunteers get the same training as the paid staff”.
There are qualifications to be gained…
“When I volunteered maybe 10 years ago it was all the certificates that ended up getting me a job, built my confidence and self-esteem and gave me a basic understanding of certain topics to build on. For people with lived experience that is vital.”
Volunteers as ‘role models’
For those in recovery it is highly encouraging and inspirational to come in contact with individuals who are ‘success cases’. Living proof that it is possible to recover with the right guidance and support. I asked one ex-volunteer who is now paid staff if she could now see herself in that light…?
“Aye, definitely. It took me a long time to realise that. I am and was well known. People know what I was like and now they can see what I’ve become. They can see that I’m progressing. I’ve just graduated from an HNC. Folk see that and word of mouth is a huge thing around here. People think ‘there’s hope for me cos if she can do it then I can do it’.”
Referring back to what a peer support manager said about shared experience only taking folk so far, it is important to regard the recovery process as being far more than just the recognition, mutual or otherwise, that one has an addiction problem. The bigger picture is why and what it is in your life that makes you behave the way you do? This is where the ‘mix’ plays such a big part. Where peer support is valuable in ‘breaking down barriers’, staff with training in psychology, health and wellbeing (and, don’t forget, peer supporters will have training in such areas too) will have expertise in addictive behaviour. * What are the triggers? What is it in life that is difficult to cope with? How can one learn life skills and acquire effective tools to effect change for the better? * Professional psychologists working with recovery agencies will offer courses offering insight into addictive behaviour, everything from how the brain works to Windows of Tolerance. Thus, service users tune in to the causes of their own behaviour and maybe later as volunteers they can assist in passing this on to others beginning recovery.
*In some cases, and in some organisations, there are volunteers who are psychology students at local universities.
**For instance, the basis of SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) is based around a 4-point programme: Building and maintaining motivation, Coping with urges, Managing thoughts, feelings and behaviours, living a balanced life. In order to achieve these there are a variety of CBT- based ‘tools’ proposed in a way that is relevant to an individual’s life and situation. For instance, HALT The BADS
Hunger, Anger, Lonely, Tired
Boredom, Anxiety, Depression, Stress
Possible barriers and pitfalls
Volunteering while in recovery can go wrong if it is not managed and supervised correctly and this may be combined with the volunteer having unrealistic expectations or trying too hard. The ‘right role at the right time’ is an important rule of thumb and individuals should be eased gently into roles and trained appropriately.
One agency we spoke to raised the issue of PVG…
“The biggest barrier right now is PVG Disclosure Scotland. Nine and a half times out of ten people with lived experience will have some sort of criminal background. Recently I’ve had two people come back and it has said consider listing.”
Obviously, it depends on the offence, but if still considered appropriate to become a volunteer, it can take some time before that individual ‘off the list’ and suitable for training.
Though initial PVG problems may not always be the barrier they seem. As one peer support coordinator in one of Edinburgh’s main recovery agencies told us…
“it’s never been a blanket no for anybody, but we have had to provide covering letters and additional information like supporting evidence based on the present so what Ive always said is it’s worth being persistent.”
So, there is room for discretion in this delicate area though obviously diligence and sensibility must prevail.
“Sometime what Disclosure Scotland say it’s the nature of the offence and sometimes it sounds worse than it is, so once it’s explained what it is and how it happened, obviously they were maybe under the influence or it’s a consequence of that lifestyle, so we can do a covering letter for them here which saying they’ve completed treatment of 12 weeks, this is where they’re at and this is what they’re engaging in and they might get a supporting letter from elsewhere as well and that allows them to continue.”
Indeed, being unable to undertake this peer support volunteering because of one’s past goes against a fundamental ethos of recovery…
“…there are a lot of people who are going to be great at this work and great at this volunteering and if we can’t recruit them because they’ve got a criminal background it goes against everything we’re trying to teach about people being able to change.”
One other perceived barrier is the view the local job centre may take of voluntary work although this has been somewhat favourably clarified only very recently with the publication of the pamphlet ‘You can volunteer while on benefits’ by TSI Scotland Network and jobcentreplus. Still, according to some agencies there is trepidation among their service users about the perceived risk of this. Employment and Support Allowance had the ‘Permitted work’ clause which allowed for up to 16 hours work per week, paid or unpaid with certain limits and provisos whereas Universal Credit which has replaced ESA does not. Hopefully, this new literature and stance from DWP will allay these fears.
So, is the experience of volunteers in recovery a largely positive one? And what of the agencies who provide volunteering roles, do they benefit from their voluntary staff? The answer would seem to be affirmative on both counts.
A congenial and friendly setting such as an urban farm would seem to have been the perfect place for vulnerable folk often with mental health histories to be able to express themselves and contribute to an enjoyable and worthwhile activity. They were certainly appreciated by a manager who told us…
“I reckon I probably learned more from them than they learned from any of us. I loved working with them, and I miss them so much. There was one guy, he was completely non-verbal but thinking about him I swear I can hear his voice. He was so expressive and so emotional and so connected to us all and he was a joy to work with. All the workers wanted to work with him. There was just something about him, he was absolutely delightful.”
But it is withing recovery agencies and related ventures that we find a great many volunteers many of whom had been service users. Indeed, roughly half of the coordinators and managers that we interviewed were once service users and are now paid staff.
This phenomenon could be seen a many-faceted success story. Recovery organisations benefit from the services of volunteer peer supporters who can lend their empathy, experience and knowledge to service users. In any event, they will have the chance to pick up valuable experience in a familiar workplace environment They will have the reward of seeing their input as a valuable contribution and, as we were told, there is a strong element of ‘giving something back’ to it. They will receive training and, in many cases, gain qualifications that will stand them in good stead whether they stay to work in the recovery environment or venture beyond.
People in recovery are very often damaged in their self-esteem, personal confidence and have a low opinion of themselves and what they can offer. What better then than to work your way back to normal citizenship by contributing to a structured and supportive environment where you can be taught and learn maybe for the first time that your knowledge and experience can be of immense value to others?
In terms of new beginnings for people in recovery our findings are heartening indeed. A gentle start with support and encouragement can and does increase confidence and esteem as well as a skill base. Some of the people we interviewed will have had a past they are no longer prepared to repeat. They are reborn!
With thanks to Turning Point, CGL, an ex-Volunteer Manager of a local urban farm, MELD, Rowan Alba, Crew2000, Bethany Christian Trust and LEAP for their valuable and enlightening contributions.