Blog written by Sam Welham, Volunteer with Learn for Life Enterprise 2019/20
The Learn for Life Enterprise is an educational initiative located in the culturally diverse area of Sharrow, Sheffield. Although we are most known for providing classroom lessons in English as a second language as well as maths and other functional skills, we view ourselves more as a ‘community hub’ which offers a wide range of services. During my time volunteering at Learn for Life over the past academic year, I have not only been able to acquire useful professional skills by dedicating my time in a way that suits my academic commitments, but also truly feel that I have gained immense personal satisfaction with the work I have done as well as forming life-long friendships along the way.
I started volunteering at Learn for Life in September of 2019 as I was about to go into the final year of my course at university. Although I had spent the past few years in Sheffield, I felt that I had not yet really been able to engage with the local community outside of the student bubble, and was really anxious to get out there and to start to feel like I could positively contribute to people’s daily lives in the city.
I came across Learn for Life on the Sheffield Volunteering website and was instantly inspired by its mission. They look after vulnerable and hard-to-reach members of the community, local residents, refugees, asylum seekers, BME communities and older people with the aim of promoting and maintaining cohesion and integration. I felt that this really encompassed the values of Sheffield as a community and why it was a unique place to live, with its vast committed volunteer network as well as its historical ties as being the first City of Sanctuary in the UK.
I contacted Hayley, the co-coordinator of the organisation, to express my interest in volunteering as a receptionist at Learn for Life. The process involved an informal meeting at the centre to ascertain my motivations and experiences to see if volunteering there would be right for me. I was made at ease by how friendly the staff and service-users were, and it really felt like a mutually supportive environment. In the weeks before university started, I spent a few days a week in the classrooms in order to gain a greater appreciation for the work they do, and then started working every Friday as a volunteer receptionist.
What I really enjoy about working at Learn for Life is the variety of roles I am able to perform. The reception desk is often the first point of contact for many service-users, and the role often involves answering the phone, registering students, and making appointments for the range of services we provide. I also perform other administrative duties such as scanning, printing classroom materials and have even had the opportunity to create my own information directories to better help service-users access support from various local services. All of these opportunities have given me key skills that will be useful in a professional setting in the future.
More important than this, however, is the extent I have formed strong and productive working relationships with staff and service-users. Many of our services users come from hard-to-reach backgrounds, such as refugees and asylum seekers, and we really pride ourselves in being the first port-of-call for all people in need of support. This too is also extremely varied and has involved providing assistance with tasks as diverse as helping to book appointments for indefinite leave to remain applications, to helping to activate college bus passes! Our ethos is essentially to address the lack of support available to those who are often marginalised within the community, and therefore no problem is too big or small and we would never turn anyone away.
I would recommend volunteering to any university student no matter what year they are currently in. Organisations that depend on volunteers are often more than willing to be flexible in regards to volunteering arrangements, meaning there is always a way to strike a balance with any of your other commitments. Because of this, I would also particularly recommend volunteering to students with certain personal or economic circumstances that mean that it is not always possible to undertake other professional developmental opportunities, such as summer internships. These are often unpaid or underpaid and can really disadvantage those unable to meet the travel or accommodation expenses necessary, as such opportunities are often the preserve of large cities. Although also unpaid, volunteering offers a much more flexible arrangement, therefore allowing you also meet personal or familial commitments or to undertake paid employment with perhaps less developmental opportunities, whilst developing a core professional skill-set via volunteering.
Overall, volunteering at Learn for Life over the past year has been an absolute pleasure, and I would encourage anyone to get involved, either with us or with any other volunteering opportunity in Sheffield.