"We used to volunteer with Mencap, where we gained some key skills and experiences, and as a result, successfully applied for paid jobs and started our new careers."
What was it like volunteering with Mencap?
Josie: Volunteering with Mencap was great! As a Job Club Volunteer I supported people with a learning disability to develop their skills and get into employment. I remember feeling panicky at school because I wasn’t academic, so I liked the idea of helping people do what they wanted to do. Bring on the challenge!
Volunteering soon became my favourite part of the week. Even on weeks where I wasn’t feeling well or was visiting family in the north, I always made it back to London for my session.
My first day was a standout. The seven guys in the group treated me with suspicion at first but they soon warmed to me and had the best sense of humour.
Luis: I had a really good time volunteering with Mencap. I was supported the coordinator in the Employment team to deliver training sessions that would help people with a learning disability to develop work and employment skills.
I learned that different people have different abilities and you need to find a way to explain things to each person. I had to speak plain English and find other ways to communicate.
The people we work with are amazing. Super nice, very welcoming and they embrace help.
You meet the guys once and that’s it! They smile and you see how they really want to do the things we take for granted. They really want to work.
How did volunteering help you get a job?
Josie: Before I started volunteering, my confidence was so low I couldn’t see myself applying for jobs.
I started by volunteering one day a week, and built up to two, with my supervisor Samantha trusting me to take on more responsibility, take on more one-to-one sessions and eventually even covering the Job Club when she had to be out of town for a meeting.
Volunteering showed me I was capable of doing a good job with the guys I was supporting, and getting my skill set together. Without the volunteering I wouldn’t have felt ready to apply for a real job.
By getting the practice and learn what was expected I got a fantastic trial run, so when I moved into the full time job I was ready for the challenge. It opened me up to a whole new career.
At the same time, I was developing my understanding of learning disability. The group who attended the Job Club were eight young men with different abilities and needing different types of support. I learnt to understand their non verbal cues and each person’s capability.
While volunteering I asked my Samantha a ridiculous amount of questions. She treated me as a colleague from day one. If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be here!
In that sense it was a transformation and I really built up my confidence and skills.
Luis: I’d been working as a waiter for a long time.
The people we support were so welcoming and made me feel good. When I first came to England I found English people a bit closed and quiet, and the people we support really helped me to feel integrated and welcome!
I got past my prejudices and saw things for myself. One thing I learnt is that people are very capable, but they just need someone to be patient, listen and explain things.
By volunteering I felt my confidence and self-esteem improve a lot.
How much did you know about learning disability, and the challenges people can face, before you became a volunteer?
Luis: I had a relative with Down’s Syndrome when I was young. We used to play a lot and we were good friends.
Josie: When I was 10/11 years old a girl with Down’s Syndrome joined my school, and we hit it off. I also buddied up with a younger girl with a learning disability at Guides.
After I graduated I was working in a school with children with challenging behaviour. It was a stressful working environment and after a while I felt burnt out. I realised I needed to take a step back and rethink what I was doing, so I thought about what I’d enjoyed most in the past and googled “learning disability”. The first thing that came up was volunteering with Mencap.
I’d always wanted to volunteer but had never found the time. When I’d left my job I thought why not!
Tell us a bit about yourself!
Luis: I was an accountant in Mexico before coming to London. I came to study English for 6 months, and 17 years later I’m still here! I worked as a waiter and cleaner while studying. I did another degree in Social Sciences here in London and wasn’t sure what to do next, so I decided to volunteer and get experience. Whatever you want to do, you need experience. If you want to learn a skill you have to sacrifice something – you’re investing in yourself.
Josie: At university I studied Drama, Applied Theatre & Education. In the course we looked at things that influenced theatre, like gender and politics, and went out to meet people and bring drama into the community. I did a placement in an SEN school, with children with profound disabilities. It was the most rewarding thing! It made me think differently and it was my first taste of how to teach inclusively.
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