A #GREATWayTo Volunteer

GREAT Project Employment Support Officer Anita reflects upon her experiences of volunteering during the Covid-19 pandemic.

I never imagined that I would start volunteering during a worldwide pandemic but that is exactly what happened, and I haven’t looked back…..in fact I am so looking forward to continuing on this journey.

It was in back in January before Corona Virus, I was sat in Wigston library waiting to meet a participant who I had been supporting. She was keen to do some voluntary work so I was searching through the Voluntary Action Leicestershire (VAL) volunteering site when I came across a volunteering opportunity for restorative panel members as part of the youth justice service.

The panel is where children come who have pleaded guilty in court to a crime and given a referral order. The person who offended as well as those affected come together in a facilitated conversation about what happened and how the person responsible for the offence can make amends and move on.  Activities are identified to help the child deepen their understanding of the harm, make amends, make a positive connection in the community and make a plan to not re-offend.

The youth justice system see children with complex needs including health and education and as a result, these young people can often demonstrate challenging behaviours. I was aware that children were entering the youth justice system for more serious offences and in recent years, there was an increase in the numbers of children charged with possession of weapons and I was aware of how knife crimes were destroying families.

I knew that black children were disproportionately high in the youth justice system and I  thought that  as a panel member  I could in some way  represent my own diverse community and help bring an awareness of diversity and discrimination to the panels.

Applying to be a volunteer was straight forward, just an email to register my interest followed by a short application form. They took up references and then invited me to attend their comprehensive training programme. I started my training in March but after the first day, however due to Coronavirus all subsequent dates were cancelled until further notice. I was worried that would be the end, but thankfully it was not!

I eventually completed the training through online webinars, reading articles and regular catch up meetings, and finally on the 3rd September I sat in on my very first panel meeting – well virtually – it was on the phone!  And was fantastic. To start, I was observing just so I could hear how panels ran and get a feel for what to say and when. I was able to attend 3 face to face panels and was even asked to be the lead panel member on one of these which was both nerve wracking and exciting all rolled into one. Once I relaxed, I found the panel’s really enjoyable and left feeling as though I had really contributed something important, and I knew I had made the right decision to start volunteering.

To be a panel member you need to be able to listen to everyone on the panel, the ability to see the strengths of the child and to help identify things that might need some change, as well as highlight their aspirations for the future. Maybe this type of volunteer role is not right for everyone, but I would say if not this find something that suits you because it is a great feeling knowing that you’re making a difference.