I would love to say that my desire to volunteer was due to a deep yearning for changing the world and contributing to society in a positive way: and to some extent this is true, and it does respond to a need to give to people who are less fortunate than I am. It was also about discovering something about myself, I guess. So as you may have guessed, my reasons for volunteering at the ***** Center for disadvantaged children were varied: I also miss being a therapist a bit, although quitting a few years back has definitely been the right decision.
The center supports children in the grip of poverty and/or from abusive families, offering a real lifeline to children and families who live in dire conditions: and yes, that happens in a city like *****, right under our rich, well fed and generally happy noses. While my biggest worry is what to cook for dinner so that the kids don’t get bored with the same old recipes, there are children who don’t even have a dinner, most of the time. Having read a bit about the background of the center and their activities, I was really curious to see how life is at the center. Names have been changed.
A day as a volunteer
First impressions at the center are good: it’s like being in Peter Pan’s cave. The ambiance is cosy, the walls are painted in pink, orange, green with artwork everywhere; there are people of all backgrounds and ages sitting around (the staff and volunteers), all dressed rather ‘street’-me included. It’s so nice to be able to be dressed ‘casual’, thorn jeans and jumper and scarf. This is what I’m talking about: ditch the suit. It’s like being in a secret society at the end of a nuclear world, in an post-apocalyptic city: and we are the opposition to the regime.
At 3.30 bang on time Jo, the volunteers coordinator, takes me to ‘the coats’, where we greet the kids; I help hang their coats as they arrive. While I do that, I can’t help thinking that they have probably received such garments through this organisation: I also notice that many of the children are dressed really poorly. By that I mean that their clothes are dirty; worn; and they seem of poor quality and old. Not all, of course: a percentage though.
I am informed that I am assigned to the shed: it’s a quiet space for younger children. It’s a roomy shed, organised with toys and a mat; the children have an opportunity to play quietly, with no agenda, in a safe space. It’s very hot in the shed and frankly I am bit disappointed: I wanted to be where the action is- some cool activity, or the gym. I want to talk, and play and jump around and have lots of people around. It turns out though that I have underestimated the whole thing: when the children start to arrive, we all sit and play with the toys. I build a Lego tower with the children; we build a Lego cot for the babies (not real ones, dolls); we change the babies’(the dolls!) nappies and clothes; one kid keeps ‘injecting’ me with a toy syringe. The kid thinks it’s hilarious that I fall asleep after each injection! Then at some point he points at his hand and shows me a mark.
‘This is where they injected me to make me sleep,’ he says.
‘Who?’ I ask.
‘The doctors,’ he says.
‘What was wrong with you?’ I ask. At this question, his eyes become glazed and he starts shouting, ‘Injection! Injection!’ in a manic way and tries to inject me again: he pinches my vein and it hurts, but I don’t say anything. I wasn’t trying to pry, it was just a simple question; one that obviously makes him upset and results into evading an answer. It’s interesting that he doesn’t express his anger or pain through a verbal reaction; he just appears to be on a different planet now. We are not talking anymore. He was there a second ago, when we were talking; he is still here in body, but not in spirit. I don’t show it, but this strikes me as a weird, manic way of reacting: perhaps it’s the way someone who had a truly traumatic experience reacts.
We move on and everyone is playing, building things and generally being happy. There are a couple of squabbles but nothing serious. The playroom supervisor gives a fantastic report to Jo on my skills with children: apparently I am a natural!
After lunch, I am in the section where key workers and social workers work from. They look after referrals, the clients, their needs etc.. The whole staff onsite have a de-brief at about 1.30 pm: we are all in the foyer. Before things start I get to talk to Gaz, who is a musician and who works with the children writing song and music.
‘It’s more on a therapeutic level rather than career/professional,’ he explains. The children often use music and songs to express underlying issues, and it’s not rare that a referral is made as an outcome of such activities.
‘It was a real eye-opener,’ he says.
‘How long did it take you to get used to the issues faced by these children?’ I ask.
‘I am in the fifth year and I still find it shocking at times; but I remember being really shocked when I first started,’ he reflects.
I wish he didn’t tell me that it takes so long to settle in this place, true that in this short time I feel like I have learnt tonnes, but I have to admit reality is still sinking in. I am seeing a different side of the city. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a posh girl used to cocktails and lunches, I am well aware of poverty and of this ‘parallel world’: I haven’t quite interacted with it. Well, it’s all going to change, I am going to get involved and I want to be a voice for these people: I want a world where everyone has dignity and has a dignified lifestyle.
After the de-brief I join Alex (manager for the social work side of things) and the others in their room. It becomes apparent that they are under tonnes of paperwork and a million things to do at the same time: they look after all the users of the center other referrals, new clients etc. Zelda, a social worker, shows me a letter she is writing. It’s a peculiar case: basically a child who uses the after school center has gone out of the center during hours when he should have been there, and has committed a robbery. It’s a sticky situation.
I am assigned a pile of clothes to sort out (self-assigned actually): two big chaotic bags to turn into well-ordered piles of toys and clothing, all cataloged It is explained to me that sometimes in cases of extreme need they like to have garments here at the office, because it takes time to request such items from the warehouse. Alex and a volunteer are sorting a few school dinners payment requests and I am beginning to see how the whole system works: there is a lot of writing involved, and lots of ‘yeses’ to gain to go ahead with a ‘delivery’, but it’s also a system that guarantees that there are many eyes watching and fairness at the center of it. It’s a lot of work though. For example. A lady has fallen behind with payments for her child’s school dinners at a local primary school: she is asking that the center pays. The request has to be done through a solicitor’s letter to Alex; then Alex contacts head office and head office says yes, in most cases. Then everything is filed in the client’s file. Every single interaction, every single event has to be recorded in the client’s file, Alex explains: this is to protect the key/social worker and the client alike.
I have to say I am fascinated by what these people do, day in day out, but I also feel that it must be very hard to have to deal with the most horrific cases of neglect and abuse, such as the many they see.
‘Yes, of course it’s very hard,’ says Zelda, who is a staff member, not a volunteer. ‘I know of social workers who get very depressed, even commit suicide. It can really get to you’.
I don’t have any difficulty believing it. When I worked as a complementary therapist, people would often confide their problems with me; and mind you, they were ordinary problems. It doesn’t mean that to them or me such problems weren’t significant, but they were of a different magnitude. Here we are talking of children who are sexually abused, sold into prostitution, severely neglected.
Needless to say, I am totally drained by 3.30, and all I have done is sorting out a few bags of clothing and follow a couple of cases-the staff are writing letters, organizing material, assessing. A couple of children need their lunches paid in school; one family needs a new double buggy for twins; we sort a few food vouchers; there is the case of the robbery child; another lady comes to the center to take a few donations. She has three children and is living on nothing a week, no joke. Alex is very helpful and really tries to include me, but I really think I am about to pop so I announce my imminent leave.
‘I hope this wasn’t too overwhelming for you,’ she kindly says. Well, a bit it was. It’s like looking at an iceberg and realizing that there is a good chunk of it below the waterline. There are names, lots of names on the database. I have certainly gone away with a sense that something needs to be done and I feel if anything even more motivated in pursuing human rights campaigning.
Written By: Elena Francesca Barbiero