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Celebrating Cornwall's Volunteer Drivers

What a great day! Today was the annual Cornwall Celebrates Volunteering awards where we, and lots of other organisations take some time out to recognise the amazing contribution that volunteers make to life in the county. Given my responsibility for transport I am lucky enough to host the table for the volunteer drivers.

This year both Steve and Fred from the Merlin Centre, and Doreen from Age UK were highly commended, and I am very proud to say that our own Jenny Stephens was the Volunteer of the Year in the driver category. I know I speak for everyone involved in making the decision about the winner when I say that it was a really tough decision this year. Steve and Fred effectively operate the Merlin Centre's entire transport scheme getting their clients into the centre and supporting all their other activities. Doreen is one of Age UK's extraordinarily committed drivers giving up huge chunks of her time helping get people to essential appointments.

Jenny is one of the bedrocks of our own scheme, she gives up so much time both as part of our car scheme, and as one of our skilled minibus and accessible vehicle drivers. She is really knowledgeable about providing transport in a safe and dignified manner for people with disabilities, and uses that knowledge to continually push us to improve what we do and to help other organisations ensure that they offer a good level of service.

It was genuinely a pleasure to see Jenny's and the other drivers' efforts recognised and inspiring beyond words to hear the stories of volunteers in so many different fields and the impact that they have.

Image of the transport table at the 2017 CCV event

Getting to Hospital

This week NHS Kernow Clinical Commissioning Group have announced fairly significant changes to the way in which they support transport for patients to and from medical appointments. In essence the changes are to ensure that there is consistency in the support which people receive which is, of course, an improvement. However, in practice it seems that the changes will mean that some people who have been used to receiving significant support for their transport costs in getting to hospital are, with very little notice, going to receive markedly less support. When I say ‘very little notice’ I mean it too, the changes come into effect today.

Read more: Getting to Hospital

Lessons to Take-Away

In my experience insight springs most easily when two or three trends of which you’re aware overlap and you’re forced into seeing the similarities. I recently had occasion to give a presentation on what I thought the major challenges facing Cornwall and the charity sector in particular are. In writing the presentation I found myself being persuaded that a lot of the really obvious challenges are merely symptoms of a greater problem, one which I’ll admit I have been sceptical of before but which is one which has come back to the fore this week.

Read more: Lessons to Take-Away

Are you sitting comfortably?

Our volunteers transport an awful lot of young people around the county, and a great number of our drivers report that they find driving young people one of the more rewarding elements of volunteering with us as they get to see young people developing their skills and confidence and grow into young adults with all the possibilities that entails. Indeed it is not unknown for some of our longer serving drivers to arrive at a new address to realise that a young person they used to drive years before now has a family of their own. Large numbers of volunteers are driven by a desire to feel more connected to their communities and I think that there is little which does that more definitively than participating, even in a small way, in children growing up.

Driving young people does come with its own set of particular challenges however. Not necessarily the obvious things like making sure that proper safeguarding policies are followed (although such things are obviously really important), I’m thinking more about how drivers feel dealing with the responsibility of having young people in their care. When driving adults drivers know that by and large their passenger will speak up if they feel something is wrong, and that they can take care of themselves to a large extent. Young people however do need a bit more care and drivers have to be more proactive in keeping them safe and feel a much greater sense of responsibility for young people in their cars.

Recently, the government has brought in long anticipated changes to the regulations relating to child car seats. The first thing  to say is that these changes are long-overdue. The changes require that new car seats must be full high-back seats as opposed to the booster cushions which don’t have a back to them. The new style are significantly safer for young people as they create a properly scaled cradle for their torso, and crucially guide the safety belt around them at an appropriate height. While the old style booster cushions remain legal where they were purchased prior to the change in the regulations drivers and parents quite rightly want to use the safest options available to them. As an organisation that puts health and wellbeing at the forefront of what we do we also felt a strong moral obligation to make sure that the best seats we could obtain were available to our drivers.

Having made that decision the practicalities kick in. Firstly how do you pay for a large number of seats – well, happily Cornwall Council do offer grant funding to community transport groups for safety equipment and were prepared to give us some funds in order that we could buy these seats. Secondly, how do you go about buying 70+ car seats in one go - well, the UK distributer of Joie car seats were incredibly helpful, gave us a really good price and arranged delivery leaving us with the ‘simple’ task of storing 70 car seats and distributing them around the county. There have been moments over the last couple of weeks worthy of an Ealing Comedy as I move walls of seats from one room to another in order for colleagues to entertain visitors and there are still some cupboards in the building where if you open the door you are greeted by floor to ceiling boxes. Since it has been the Easter holidays a lot of our drivers took us up on the offer of a cup of tea and a chat and made the journey to Truro to collect their seats meaning that when school started again their passengers had brand new, much safer, seats. It took a surprising amount of work to make it happen but it feels good to know that our passengers are that bit safer.

Bill, his car, and his can-do attitude

I want to tell the story of one of our volunteers, he is a private and modest guy so it is a bit light on details which might identify him but I think it’s a powerful tale, its also a bit long for a blog post but I think it is a story worth telling properly; see what you think.

Since Bill walked in our doors about a year ago and asked about becoming a volunteer driver he has made huge differences to the lives of people in his community. On one occasion a charity we work with were hosting a VIP and all the young people they helped were really excited about the day. Due to a mix up with the addresses they gave us one of their young clients hadn’t been collected and it looked a lot like they would miss meeting a genuine star. We were horrifically short on time to resolve the problem by the time we worked out what had happened. The mix-up wasn’t anyone’s fault but I didn’t think the young person, or their parents, would feel any the better for that, we ourselves felt terrible. I dialled Bill who lives nearby and mentally rehearsed my most persuasive / grovelling speech, I needn’t have bothered. Without even thinking about it he said that he was on his way, and with that he headed out, against the clock, into the worst of the Cornish summer traffic. The instant willingness to help, and to do things that others would think un-doable is what makes Bill a bit special.

Another time, Bill was picking up an older lady to take to hospital for some long awaited tests. After knocking on her door and telephoning her without any answer, he called the office and told us he was worried about her. He asked us to keep calling her while he went to speak to the neighbours to see if they had seen her leave. While he did that he called the hospital to check that she had not arrived there under her own steam. Fearing that she may have been taken ill in the night he also contacted the local police in case they might be needed. Eventually, his passenger came to the door, having just woken up. Seeing Bill she suddenly remembered her appointment. She was really upset at the thought that she had missed it. Now, Bill had been there for about an hour by this stage but nevertheless, he got back on his phone and asked us if we could arrange another driver for his next journey. Then, while his passenger got herself ready, persuaded the staff at the hospital with whom he had spoke earlier to fit the lady in later that day, drove her straight there and waited there until she was ready to go home. Something no-one would have expected of him, but for Bill it seemed like the natural thing to in the circumstances.

It says something about Bill that he doesn’t see his conduct in these stories, or any of the others my colleagues could tell about him, as being very remarkable and in fact he looked a bit embarrassed when I asked about us writing this post together. What I think makes Bill’s story all the more interesting is just how easy it would have been for us to have missed out on the many contributions that he has made over the last year.

The first day I met Bill he made no secret of the fact that as a young man he had been in trouble and worried that it might stop him from volunteering with us. Bill offered a reference from a local social enterprise he had been helping if that would help. As it happened I ran into one of their managers a day or two later and she told me about how willing he had been to help them, and what a big contribution he had made there and said that she would provide a reference without hesitation and so I resolved to work with Bill as best I could, whatever his police checks revealed.

Bill comes from a big city up north, his brothers have served with distinction in the forces but Bill developed a disability in his early teens so following his brothers wasn’t an option. Bill also has dyslexia and I don’t imagine growing up with a disability and dyslexia in the seventies gave him a lot of hope for his future. As young men sometimes do when their options seem limited Bill found himself in trouble with the police and wound up with a criminal record, nothing terribly serious but significant enough to have caused him problems from time to time over the years when these things have been checked. As Bill tells it he decided that the life he was making for himself in his home city wasn’t good and so he decided to move as far away as he could and ended up in Cornwall. Other than a little hiccup shortly after he arrived in the early eighties Bill hasn’t been in trouble since crossing the Tamar. His dyslexia and disability has made his working life challenging sometimes but volunteering where he can has filled the gaps that arose.

The things revealed by Bill’s police checks all happened 35 years ago, and were all driven by his circumstances and environment then. He and I spoke about them and he was open and thoughtful about his past and his life now. In the end I and other Managers here agreed that we did not think that mistakes made 35 years ago should stop anyone from volunteering with us. I worry though that some organisations would however be put off by previous convictions and the community would have missed out on exceptional contribution that Bill wants to make. Charities place a lot of trust in volunteers and almost universally now consider references or Disclosure and Barring Service checks in order to ensure that that trust is not misplaced. Few would have criticised a charity who politely declined Bill’s offer of help as a matter of course because of his history but their organisation would have been weaker if they did. This isn’t an argument to say disregard safe recruitment processes, they are a necessary part of working with volunteers, this is just me setting out my stall that sometimes, if you know your work, an absolute approach to previous convictions may not be necessary, and may rob your organisation of someone with lots to give, as well as rob them of the opportunity to do something good. If we had rejected Bill we would never have known how much he can offer, and many people’s lives around Cornwall would have taken a different turn in the last twelve months.

They say “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”, well Bill certainly does things differently in the here and now. Between his hours of volunteering with us (and many others over the years) and spending time with his children and his many grandkids (who make his face light up whenever he mentions them), today he is an example of the force for good that strong community spirit and caring for others is, whatever he did all those years ago.