My previous Blog highlighted how some community events are unlikely to happen without the energy and commitment of local volunteers. My current Blog also highlights a service that would not be available without its charitable beginnings or without the help of its army of volunteers.
I recently met Gerry at the Visitors Centre at H.M. Prison Northumberland. Gerry is a volunteer for NEPACS, a north east charity which has been supporting people affected by imprisonment for over 130 years. The aim of the organisation is to support prisoners and their families in the north east of England by providing practical and emotional support.
Gerry volunteers within the Visitors Centre and helps to book visitors in prior to going across to the Visits Hall. New visitors are directed across to the prison to have their fingerprints taken and for security reasons they also have their photo taken on this initial visit. The prints and photo are then placed on a database so that “in future they can be just scanned through”. Gerry advises all visitors about Prison Policies, such as, only £20 in change allowed per Visiting Order and reminds them that they should carry their ID. Visitors and family members are then shown lockers to place prohibited items in and advised that prison officers conduct regular searches to enforce this prison policy.
As expected this process can be quite an ordeal for family members. Gerry said he likes supporting visitors, who may be very nervous, especially when they arrive for their very first visit. Many visitors are fearful about meeting their loved one, but also anxious and intimidated by the prison experience and environment. Gerry finds that visitors enjoy the “security of knowing, or being informed, about what’s going to happen”, so he likes to take time to sit with them. He explains the process and tries to reassure and calm them down a little, because he says “Families have a hidden sentence too!”.
Gerry has only been volunteering since August and says he is really enjoying his experience. Originally from another part of the country he retired to this area several years ago. In fact, he has retired twice, once at 56 and then again at the age of 62. Working previously as a Logistics Manager and a Publican, Gerry described himself as a ‘people person’ who ‘stagnated’ and got bored during his first retirement. He subsequently bought a shop and Post Office business but was forced to give that up as well after a series of heart attacks. Again Gerry began to, in his own words ‘vegetate’. However, after an accidental meeting with a lady who already volunteered for NEPACS and after some encouragement from his sister who is a Magistrate, he looked at their NEPACS website and thought “Yes, this is for me!”
Initially Gerry assumed the role may involve doing practical, “low level stuff” he also thought it may involve working with a mixture of people. In some respects, this was right, but it turned out to involve a lot of his interpersonal “people skills” too. Indeed, he found that “dealing with different people, you eventually build up relationships.” He now finds he knows a lot of the repeat visitors well, and they are just “ordinary people who happen to have relatives in prison.”
As a volunteer Gerry feels that he was made very welcome, immediately. In fact, the organisation has many voluntary opportunities, as well as part time and full time opportunities and different age groups, who all work together for a common goal. Gerry works one day per week for 4 hours but puts in more hours when training and he is kept updated by regular Team Meetings. Gerry feels “absolutely” valued by the organisation and his colleagues and although he sometimes has to think on his feet he said “it’s always such a supportive, positive, can do atmosphere!” He said It also feels good to be told “Thank You, at the end of the day”. The only down side, or good side depending upon how you want to look at it, is as Gerry acknowledges “I appear to be the only Male volunteer!”
All NEPACS volunteers are given access to policy guidance documents to guide their actions and are given regular support, supervision and encouragement. They also participate in regular reviews to discuss any issues or development objectives and the organisation offers a wide variety of training opportunities and experiences. Indeed, Gerry feels that he has already developed in his role and recently completed the HEADING HOME programme which is an initiative to support families when prisoners are released and during resettlement. Basically, it is a 14 week course and is an opportunity for prisoners and their families to talk over any pre or post release worries with a facilitator. The idea being to create a more positive resettlement experience. Gerry hopes to eventually become a facilitator and participate in this scheme, once he gets clearance for his security pass.
Asked about THE most positive experience of volunteering, Gerry said it “lifted me out of quite a mundane day to day life”. He now starts each work day “looking forward to what’s ahead!”
Whilst concluding my meeting with Gerry, his line manager Liz Arthur (The Visits Services Team Leader) came along and during a discussion about volunteering Liz said “Everyone has something to offer, and everyone has something to gain!” Indeed, this is so true. Gerry brought his interest in people and his interpersonal skills to his role, but as a result he has received a renewed interest in life and people. What could be better than that?