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When Tommy Bower and Yoko Lohrer first enrolled as students at UCL, they never thought they’d end up working for a bunch of pirates when they graduated. But that’s what’s happened as a result of their volunteering experiences.

Of course, these are the most benign pirates you could imagine: the Literacy Pirates, an innovative education charity based in Hackney and Haringey. They help children aged 9 – 13 who are falling behind with their reading and writing by engaging them in creative activities like publishing books, creating films or making audio projects. The emphasis is on creativity and fun – with the charity’s centres made up to resemble, well, the inside of pirate ships, and with the weekly sessions structured around buccaneering themes.

I meet Yoko and Tommy for a cup of grog (tea, actually) at the Literacy Pirates’ Hackney ‘ship’. They both started out as volunteers with the charity whilst studying at UCL and enjoyed it so much they applied for jobs here - Yoko as Education Team Assistant and Tommy as Volunteer Coordinator & Session Support.

Tommy was a History of Art student at UCL – I’m surprised to hear that he only started volunteering at the Literacy Pirates in the run up to his finals! “It was therapeutic, taking a few hours out of my week just to volunteer. I’d finish the session with so much energy, I really felt like I was in the right place. My only regret is I didn’t do it sooner.”

“I’d finish the session with so much energy… My only regret is I didn’t do it sooner.” - Tommy

Yoko got involved whilst on an MSc in Security Studies. “I was looking for something completely different to my academic life, and The Literacy Pirates grabbed my attention at the UCL Volunteering Fair – they asked me if I liked reading and pirates! I was glad I signed up – it was hard work, but so worthwhile and rewarding.”

Tommy and Yoko standing in front of sea mural

As a volunteer, Tommy picked up valuable skills – he learnt about how to get the best out of people, being a better communicator and how to be more patient. “I also got the chance to be more self reflective – we always got a debrief at the end of each session.”

Yoko felt she learnt a lot whilst volunteering too: “It gives you practical skills and shows that you have something more to offer than just your academic history – that you have other interests and can make the time to dedicate to something else.” Volunteering with the Literacy Pirates helped her get an internship with another charity, which in turn helped her get the job with the Literacy Pirates!

Their experiences as volunteers certainly helped when moving onto their paid roles. Tommy tells me, “It was really useful, as I understand the charity and its ethos, and know what it’s like to have been a volunteer.”

Steps at Literacy Pirates

Both Tommy and Yoko like the fact that you can see the difference you make here, whether as a staff member or volunteer. “This is a small charity with a really clear goal,” says Yoko. “In addition to improving literacy, the children’s confidence and perseverance get a real boost”. Yoko’s job includes looking after monitoring and evaluation, so her job gives her a particular insight into how children benefit.

Both of them loved volunteering here, and now love working here as well. “This is a small organisation where people make time for you,” says Tommy. Yoko agrees: “Everyone is passionate and really care about making a change for these children – everyone goes above and beyond!”

Interview by John Braime, Volunteering Manager

You can find out more about volunteering with the Literacy Pirates through our Volunteering Directory. You can also find more tutoring and mentoring roles, or find out how to volunteer with children.

We also have resources on how volunteering can help you with your career planning.