Features, Volunteering — By TFNadmin on 16/02/2012 10:55 pm
There’s a growing band of specialist volunteers who only come out at night, devoting their precious time to the pursuits many of us wouldn’t do for a salary. ROBERT ARMOUR finds out what motivates someone to volunteer when the lights go out…
Glasgow’s SOS bus is not just a drunk tank, says Tom Sweeten
“IT can be a thankless task but someone’s got to do it,” says Tom Sweeten. A bus delivery driver by profession, Tom is a specialist volunteer with the British Red Cross in a new initiative designed to help those most vulnerable in Glasgow’s City Centre in the wee small hours.
Despite a full-time job, Tom readily gives up his Friday and Saturday nights to tend to some of the Glasgow revelers who have gone too far.
The venture was initially launched as a pilot over the festive period to help police deal with the increase in injured and drunk people in the city but has continued indefinitely because of its success.
In partnership with Strathclyde Police and the Glasgow Council on Alcohol, volunteers like Tom have already helped 103 casualties.
Yet, after a five-day week, volunteering on a night shift is probably most people’s idea of hell but for Tom it’s the opposite.
He says it has given him a wealth of experience, taking his first aid and paramedic skills to a new level.
“The bus is not unlike an accident and emergency unit,” he said. “Obviously it’s not as gory but we get our fair share of injuries ranging from the superficial to the serious. So that can be a challenge.”
Aside from first aid, Tom has gained a wealth of new skills through volunteering on the SOS bus, from dealing with tired and emotional drunks to the mentally ill.
“The night is not all about drinkers,” he said. “It’s probably the most popular time for people who are depressed and suicidal. They might just need someone to talk to or have been referred by concerned members of the public but it’s up to us to deal with them and that again can be hard.”
It has however opened Tom’s eyes to the full spectrum of Glasgow’s nightlife.
“A lot of people think the bus is basically just a drunk tank but that is only a proportion of what we do,” he says. “You deal with the emotional, the violent, the abused and those who have had accidents. The important thing is not to judge.
“You might think someone is drunk but they could be diabetic. Or someone who has been found wandering alone not dressed properly for a cold night could have been the victim of domestic abuse.
“You just don’t know until you take the time to speak to them.”
Gaining their confidence is everything says Tom. “Once you’ve got that then they’ll open up. Often that’s what they want – someone to talk to.”
It might be unsociable hours and only at weekends, but according to Derek Masterton of the British Red Cross there’s a waiting list of people wanting to volunteer.
“It’s a good opportunity for specialist first aiders and those with paramedic qualifications to gain valuable experience,” he says. “So there are no shortage of volunteers. Couple that to the fact that they’ll get experience dealing with a whole range of issues, from the physical to the emotional, it’s probably a unique volunteering opportunity for many.”
For Tom another important plus point is an understanding partner. His girlfriend is also a trained paramedic and volunteer too so spending weekends volunteering is an accepted part of life.
“Having a sympathetic partner is important,” he says. “I love what I do but it takes a bit of understanding. I think volunteering at any level takes both commitment and understanding in equal measure. I’m fortunate I have both.”
Tags: British Red Cross, skills, TFN 672 - 17 February 2012, Tom Sweeten, volunteering
|Cavorting badgers and insomniac cows are a few of the discoveries made by nocturnal wildlife volunteers
||Dundee’s vigilante carer patrols the city’s streets at night
|EVER wondered where a badger goes after dark? Fancy volunteering to count hedgehogs in pitch black woods on a rainy weekday night? What about manning a time lapse camera to see how much grass is eaten by cows after the sun goes down and the moon comes up?
If any of this appeals to you then you’ll probably empathise with the University of Aberdeen animal ecology department’s Charlie Wilson, who spends a proportion of his time co-ordinating volunteers from all walks of life to study how animals behave when most people are sleeping.
In conjunction with Scottish Natural Heritage, he is part of a team who use the findings in order to protect the country’s wildlife and to research animal behaviour.
Motivation varies but according to Charlie a love of animals and a passion for the outdoors is all it requires.
“It’s a question I never tire of hearing – who on earth would want to do this kind of volunteering? But you’d be surprised.”
At times over a dozen volunteers can take part in field trips, says Charlie, and the most surprising part is often they’re not students.
“We do have quite a few students on our books but the majority are just everyday members of the public. They vary in age from 18 to 70 and over, but once they’re briefed and they get out on project they love it.”
For some the object is being part of a team. Others, especially young people, see it as a way of boosting their CVs. For many more its just about the outdoors and love of conservation.
“It can even be a mix of them all,” says Charlie. “It’s not a role for the feint hearted to be honest; you’ve got to be physically fit to spend up to eight hours on a field trip, sometimes being deadly still and at the same time taking notes on observations. That’s not easy and can be very demanding on volunteers.”
Conversely, Charlie reckons the nocturnal nature of the field trips attracts far more volunteers. “I think there’s an element of adventure in it all,” he says. “For some they see the dark as a parallel universe where unique things happen. That’s probably true – animals behave very differently at night than during the day. Badgers, for example, betray very cautious and careful behaviour during the day while at night you’ll see them cavorting with their counterparts and running around in circles as if they couldn’t care less.
“That’s what we want to record – the differences in nature at night in contrast to day. You might think cows sleep at night. Mostly they do but many don’t and suffer from the bovine equivalent of insomnia. We’ve even successfully treated them, believe it or not.”
Charlie also works abroad. He spends up to three months of the year researching animal habitats, mostly in rainforests, alongside his colleague Meryl Fins (pictured) and often takes some volunteers with him.
“Occasionally there are opportunities to take people with us and we just pick names out of the hat. We look to more experienced volunteers to be honest to fulfill these roles because it is often more demanding work.”
While much of the research is still work in progress, Charlie knows one thing for sure: without his willing band of nocturnal volunteers, research would come to a standstill.
“Without them we couldn’t have achieved much of the work we’ve managed over the last five years,” he says. “Thanks to the volunteers we’ve managed to make really good progress in what is a five year project. I can’t thank them enough.”
||GLEN, from Dundee, has been a number of things in life from an amateur boxer, sports coach and bar man to a travel agent. But it is only through his unpaid volunteering that he has gained the level of satisfaction out of life he has always been looking for.
After a serious accident put paid to his boxing career Glen says he went through an experience akin to a Damascene conversion, the consequence of which was a change of career.
It led to him becoming a social worker and then a counsellor. These roles brought him into contact with some of the most vulnerable people in Dundee, making him aware of those who needed help but didn’t have the resources or know-how to access it. So he decided to reach out to them.
“I had worked with police through my job in social work and knew Dundee had a lot of rough sleepers. Most of them were drug users and alcoholics who, basically, lived on the streets,” he explains.
“But there were also those who weren’t – young people thrown out of their homes, victims of domestic abuse and the like. I thought I could help them quite easily if I just spent some time contacting them.”
And that’s what he did. Alongside Tayside Police officers, Glen spends one night each week, from 9pm onwards, patrolling the city streets approaching people he thinks might need assistance.
He describes his work as a signposting service, referring people to the relevant authorities, such as housing services, social work, substance misuse groups and women’s aid organisations, but only if they agree to do so.
Although Glen works alongside all the city’s homeless and housing charities, he prefers to keep it simple and not recruit more volunteers.
“People often ask my motivation and sometimes I’m at a loss to explain it,” he says. “I suppose it looks strange: a man volunteering to give up his bed to walk often cold dark streets in search for people who have issues. But I think it’s needed. No-one else is doing it and if you ask why then I’m not ashamed to say I do it because I care. Someone has to.”
Glen does work with the police, however. Tayside Police agree to chaperone him on his patrols but they keep a distance when approaching potential clients.
“People with chaotic lives will avoid the police at all costs so a lot of discretion is needed,” he said. “I make it known anything they tell me is confidential but once I get them talking I often quickly get to the reason why they are on the streets. And it’s not always for the obvious reasons.”
Homeless people are especially vulnerable, says Glen, with many suspicious of the authorities. He’s had many successes however in getting people temporary accommodation in hostels and half-way homes, getting them out of harms way and into the warmth.
“A lot of homeless people just don’t know there are places for them,” says Glen. “So I signpost them to places they might not know about.
“The night brings out a different kind of person,” he says. “Weekends are very different from weekdays. If it is a Monday night and you see someone on the street, you know they won’t be a reveler. And often they do need help.”
Most of all Glen believes his volunteering makes a difference. “Not many people make the effort to go out after dark, apart from the emergency services, so I believe it’s needed,” he says. “I don’t pretend I make a big difference but I have managed, I believe, to have saved a few lives. And that’s probably the only justification I need to know that what I do works.”