George Washbourn is a master's student in the department of English Language and Literature and has volunteering with Refugee Council as an Integration Advice volunteer. Find out why he is a strong advocate for volunteering and how it has made a positive impact not only on other people's lives, but also his own.
Tell us a little about your volunteering.
I have been a volunteer with the Refugee Council (RC) since January 2020, a charitable organisation which provides help and guidance for certified refugees across the country. I volunteer once a week, originally applying and working as a Triage Officer, which at the time was a brand new role. This involved working at the RC's head office in Stratford on reception, greeting clients and visitors to the centre and answering any questions they might have. The triage-specific elements of the role were based on a perceived need for there to be someone with a specialist knowledge of the internal services provided by the RC, as well external services elsewhere to which a client could be signposted.
I was subsequently offered an interim contract with the RC which took me away from the triage role and into their Integration team, which works with clients to ensure they are accessing all necessary welfare services for which they are eligible, as well as providing guidance and advice on jobs, activities within their communities, and providing them with skills to allow them to flourish in their life in the UK. I have continued to volunteer in this role after the interim contract elapsed, which has been such a great stepping stone from my original triage role, building on the knowledge and experience I accrued there and getting a deepened sense of the workings of the organisation.
How did you find out about the role?
I found out about the role from the UCL Volunteering Service.
Why did you want to become a volunteer?
I have been consistently volunteering since leaving school and attending UCL at undergrad for a number of different causes. I have volunteered at homeless shelters, care homes, in schools as an English teacher, as well as a music teacher for a day centre for adults with severe mental disabilities. I knew I wanted to continue in this voluntary vein and looked for new opportunities to do so upon my return to UCL for my master's. I have been volunteering for all the reasons one would expect a person to volunteer: to have a positive impact, to gain new experiences and meet like-minded people, as well as providing a much-needed practical outlet alongside studying. Having worked as a school teacher before returning to study for my master's, I found it hard to adapt to the luxuries of simply studying for myself, rather than the rewarding rigours of working in service of others. Volunteering alongside my master's has helped scratch that itch, allowing to me see my studies in a more fruitful light.
What difference do you feel you’ve made by volunteering?
As is true across the charitable sector, volunteers are the bedrock of any charitable endeavour, having influence in a multitude of ways. This is especially true now in the less-than-charitable grips of Covid-19. I feel I have made a difference in both alleviating the highly saturated workload of the full time workers at the RC, whilst working with my colleagues to help ameliorate the situations of the large number of clients I interact with every day of my volunteering. What I have found is that clients new and established are often unaware of the services that are available to them, feeling thrown by the wayside. The simple act of calmly signposting or referring somebody in a friendly and warm manner has both the power to help ease their anxiety with their situation, as well as putting them in contact with a person or service which will help to address any of the life-altering issues they may be facing.
What impact has volunteering had on you?
Volunteering has impacted me in so many ways. Volunteers already tend towards empathy and kindness, but exposing yourself to situations which you would have otherwise only interacted with through the media or simple anecdote is only going to extend that all-too-important quality of empathy. Exposure to new situations is also a surefire way of increasing your skill set. Thanks to volunteering with the RC, I have now gained specialised knowledge of policy of protocol with respect to the rights of both asylum seekers and refugees, as well as experience of liaising with other charities, organisations, and services. It's also a great way of refining pre-existing skill sets in new environments. For instance, I am a keen linguist and have had cause to use my language skills, namely French, Spanish, and Russian in ways that don't simply involve ordering food at a restaurant! However, the biggest impact for me is feeling a sense of purposefulness.
Studying and throwing yourself into a subject is great, but keeping a positively impactful channel to the only-too-real outside world beyond the Flaxman Gallery is really important.
What’s the best thing about volunteering?
Aside from all of the reward you get from helping a cause you feel strongly about, the best thing about volunteering is the people you meet, be it colleagues or clients. In all of my volunteering and work experience within the charitable sector, I have consistently met the kindest, most supportive and most hard-working people. Working for a charitable cause is not simply a job but more of a declaration of your core life values. Meeting people who share those core values is very enriching.
And the most challenging? How did you overcome the challenges?
Volunteering is rewarding though it can also be emotionally draining. One thing I have had to contend with whilst volunteering with the RC is interacting with clients who have been or continue to be in incredibly difficult circumstances. Exposure to these stories can be upsetting, coupled with the fact that as much as one tries to, there is simply no way you or your charity of choice will be able to help everyone who comes to you for help. This can be very frustrating indeed, as well as tiring if you do overexert yourself in what can sometimes be fruitless attempts to help someone. However, the Refugee Council provide lots of training opportunities to be able to work with a range of different issues and people, so as to ensure that you are continually developing in your capacity to be able to help clients. They are also highly supportive, giving access to their therapeutic services should you need it in light of an upsetting situation. These challenges are present, but the last thing they should be is a deterrent from volunteering here.
Tell us about something memorable that’s happened to you whilst volunteering
The most memorable thing that has happened during my time at the RC is being offered a job! The RC frequently advertise internal employment opportunities, one of which came up and to which I applied. Whilst I was not successful in the initial interview due to an understandable lack of specific experience, I was subsequently offered an interim contract whilst they waited for an incoming member of staff. This was not only a very helpful opportunity to help financially support myself during my studies, but an invaluable opportunity of being interviewed for a role in the organisation, as well as becoming more involved with the work that they do.
Would you recommend volunteering? If so, why?
There is no doubt in my mind that I would recommend volunteering to anyone with an empathetic bone in their body. Volunteering is rigorous, rewarding, fun, enriching, and genuinely life-affirming. The Refugee Council in particular has allowed for opportunities for me to be impactful in a number of different roles, whilst being such a friendly and supportive place to volunteer. Don't hesitate to sign up!
Feeling swayed by George's article? Think you would also like to be a volunteer with Refugee Council? Check out their home-based Refugee Integration Advice volunteer role and see how you can help!