Here we share a thoughtful and thought provoking poem written by a volunteer who reflects on their experience of being ‘surplus to requirement’ during the Covid-19 pandemic. We are grateful to Volunteer Edinburgh for allowing us to publish the poem, and it is accompanied by a blog by Nick Woodhead, Health and Wellbeing Development Officer with Volunteer Edinburgh.
Surplus to Requirement
(By an Anonymous Volunteer)
Everybody needs a reason to get up but some can’t work for pay
Still, we long for meaning and a purpose to our day
We may need extra input to contribute – time, support and care
But, regardless of constraint or disability, we’re always there
volunteering all we have in service of a greater good,
overcoming obstacles of health, low energy or mood
The benefit we bring to organisations that we help is clear to see,
though sometimes overlooked because it’s fraught with effort and yet free
But be assured the cost to us is significant nonetheless,
considerably more than had we no impairment to attest
Empathy, experience and expert knowledge just a few
particular enhancements we can bring to work we do
But reward to us is reaped in feeling we belong
Where once considered weak, now capable and strong
Friendship and connection are a joy for all to feel,
no less for us, though sometimes we can doubt it’s real
Developing our talents, learning brand new skills
Opportunities to grow and feel fulfilled
Then Corona hit us like a brick
Killed off loved ones, quarantined the sick
And we, affected more than most, faced fear and isolation
Lost routine, a place to go, and feeling valued for our priceless contribution
Were relegated to the ranks of being a burden on the NHS
Felt worthless and unwanted, this I must confess
As others stepped up to the challenge of being needed –
those now furloughed who were not impeded
by poor heath or disability, though all the same downhearted,
looking for a cause to pick them up and get them started
Those we’ve come to call our heroes, local treasures
Doing all manner of good deed in no small measure
And yes, we ought to laud them and encourage them to volunteer
But what about the likes of us, their unsung peers
Who once enjoyed the satisfaction of being part of something noble
Now hidden in the shadows, kicked by Covid underneath the table
We understand the need to isolate and social distance,
that managers want people who can work without resistance
Where space is at a premium and time a tapering resource
they can’t support us to be part of the workforce
This virus has changed everything, for none more so than us,
thrown the sick and vulnerable under the bus
We, the casualties who want to get back on
But will there be a place for us when Covid’s gone?
Nick’s blog: celebrate the covid heroes – but what about the other volunteers?
Despite the challenges of the past 20 months, many people have been presented with opportunities: The opportunity to learn something new. The opportunity to get to know their neighbours. The opportunity to take a fresh look at their lives. The opportunity to become a Covid Hero. For many, these opportunities have been a lifeline.
Across the length and breadth of the country people answered the call to step up and offer their services to help those who were isolated at home. Through social media, their local council, voluntary organisations or volunteer centres, they collected shopping and prescriptions, walked dogs, put out bins. Of course, many of these people had their ups and downs during Covid but they were at least able to spend some of their time helping others, feeling valued and appreciated.
But this was often not the case for supported volunteers. Volunteering has long offered people with support needs (whether it be a mental health issue, a learning disability, a long term health condition) a reason to get up in the morning; a way to be a giver rather than a receiver and all the self-esteem and confidence that goes with that; a chance to get out of the house; a chance to meet new people; a chance to say they have a job. This had been their lifeline. For them Covid was a double blow. They were required to stay at home and one of the most important elements of their week was denied them.
Organisations that were required to adapt to the new environment were stretched to breaking point… Charity shops, lunch clubs, community cafes, gardening projects closed down. Befriending projects went online. Furloughed workers and retired professionals engaged in volunteering for the first time. Voluntary roles became more technology dependent or required volunteers to hit the ground running and show high levels of initiative. Organisations that were required to adapt to the new environment were stretched to breaking point and could not possibly have the time, patience and capacity to support someone with, for example, a learning disability and their support worker.
This meant that those who were not able to adapt to the new requirements were left at home, denied the benefits of volunteering. A recent survey conducted by Volunteer Edinburgh showed that people were 5 times more likely to feel valued during Covid if they continued volunteering than those who stopped. Figures for motivation and mental wellbeing were similar.
So where does that leave supported volunteering as projects begin to open up again? As organisations get back on their feet there is little capacity to provide extra support. Many of those who enjoyed their first experience of volunteering are now looking to move on to something else. The influx of these volunteers means that projects can recruit volunteers who can get on with a job with minimal supervision. And where physical space is short, they cannot afford the luxury of engaging a volunteer and a support worker when the alternative is two highly efficient experienced workers. There is also a perception, rightly or wrongly, that some volunteers will not be able to follow Covid related rules and regulations.
Over the last few decades, supported volunteering projects have been striving to ensure that people with disabilities are given the chance to use their skills and abilities to contribute to organisations through volunteering. There is a danger that the clock has been turned back 30 years to a time when only those who do not require support need apply. And what of those who were regularly volunteering at the beginning of last year, who are now unable to volunteer? How will they be supported to get back to where they were? So yes, celebrate the “Covid Heroes” but also consider those who have contributed over years and years, for whom volunteering has been a lifeline which has been denied them over the past year and may well be for the foreseeable future.
Nick Woodhead is Health and Wellbeing Development Officer with Volunteer Edinburgh