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A creative and sustainable approach to volunteering?

June 26, 2013
Aspect of sensory garden in courtyard of Atrium Day Care Centre

Aspect of sensory garden in courtyard of Atrium Day Care Centre

I was fortunate to be able to visit a celebratory open day last week at the Atrium Day Care Centre, St Luke’s Hospice in Plymouth. The main event was the opening of  their new sensory garden that had been built as part of a ‘creative wellbeing’ project run by the hospice and the WEA, supported by the Community Learning Innovation Fund.

It was a great opportunity to meet and talk to students, tutors and volunteers as well as WEA and St Luke’s staff involved in this project. It’s based in the Atrium day centre but also involves others with different serious long-term conditions, such as Alzheimer’s. The idea behind the project was to extend the range of educational activities provided for users and establish something sustainable beyond project funding. The expression ‘more than making cards’  was used a number of times.

Project tutors led group sessions involving participants in a range of practical creative activities including the garden and constructing a funky foam mosaic; the activities drew upon their memories and experiences. The mosaic below of Plymouth Hoe, an iconic Plymouth site, included details from  students’ recollections of the Hoe such as the ice cream van, the courting shelter and newly named ship. They said ‘a group project such as this is a great opportunity for socialising whilst being creative’. Often different craft activities reawakened skills, such as sewing and textiles, that students had used at work in their earlier years.

Funky foam mosaic showing Plymouth Hoe

Funky foam mosaic showing Plymouth Hoe

I was hugely impressed by the determination of the tutors to engage everyone in creative activities and find ways round the different barriers they faced. Team working and mutual support were integral to the approach. Rather than taking the students out, the ‘outside was brought in’. This may have been seaweed, African drumming, even donkeys – providing a whole variety of stimuli in an accessible way.Volunteers played a vital role in this, gently finding ways to actively involve those saying ‘I’m just watching’ and giving practical help, for example holding the paper to help people draw.

Many will recognise the value of excellent adult education of this sort but I’m particularly interested in the project’s ambition to be sustainable and survive the ending of short-term project funding. The role of volunteers is central. The project brought together existing St Luke’s volunteers and some from the WEA successfully getting them working together and learning from each other. A WEA volunteer commented to me ‘they’re very serious (the St Luke’s volunteers), they treat it like a job’. The volunteers have been trained (or had existing skills topped up) in things like jewelry making, rag rugging, felting, weaving, peg looming, sugar craft and clay work.

The staff I met at the open day were really enthusiastic about the project saying that it had greatly benefited their clients raising morale, tapping into their creativity, sociability and positive memories. The day centre Activities Co-ordinator is key to its sustainability as she will take over the management of the activities leading a team of volunteers who will provide the education. For an interim six months, with project funding, she will be mentored by the WEA co-ordinator.

The lighthouse: a group project

The lighthouse: a group project

I began with a question mark: is this a sustainable model? A full project evaluation will be conducted and this will provide some of the answers. We need to ensure that it is sustainable. There have been hundreds, probably thousands, of excellent projects that have demonstrated the value of high quality adult education in many different settings. If models like this can be integrated into our mainstream activities, the potential benefits are enormous.

What do you think?

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3 Comments
  1. One possible way of making this sustainable for the long term is to keep the volunteer led sessions fresh by interspersing them with short tutor led courses. This introduces new ideas and techniques and volunteers can learn alongside the centre residents. This approach is used successfully in WEA provision in sheltered housing schemes in East Surrey.
    I think the role of the centre co-ordinator is also central to the sustainability as it cements the partnership with the WEA so that we can be responsive to changing needs and interests. The commitment and enthusiasm of volunteers taking part in these types of creative activity is really inspirational and I know they enjoy the opportunity to ‘make a difference’ whilst developing and practicing their own creative skills. A beautiful environment is a proven way to improve the well-being of individuals and the community and in itself promotes sustainability.

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