CONNECTED speaks to Reading Voluntary Action’s CEO, Rachel Spencer, and Volunteering Development Manager, Steve Hendry – both Reading locals and University of Reading graduates – about their charity work focused on the local community.
Reading Voluntary Action (RVA) exists to promote and support the individuals and groups who make up Reading’s diverse voluntary and community sector, through encouraging and supporting volunteering and social action to improve the lives of young people and families.
Rachel, who studied Law at Reading, explained:
“My role at RVA is to provide vision and leadership so that RVA can promote the role and value of the volunteering sector to the public and to create partnerships which influence the life of the local community.
“We work with many different groups, from grassroots up to big organisations – including the University of Reading. We offer advice and training, we connect people with shared interests, help establish voluntary groups and offer networking opportunities for coordinators. We have all sorts of different people with different motivations for getting involved who work with us, showcasing the diverse and wonderful community in Reading.”
Steve shared his own motivation for getting involved in the charity sector. He said: “I didn’t expect to come to university and entered Reading through clearing, opting to study Human Geography, Politics and Sociology. I then went on to study a Master’s, followed by a PhD at the University of Kent, although I undertook most of my fieldwork in Reading.
“Through my research I had the opportunity to meet a host of different people involved in the environmental and peace movements. Many of these people were rooted in their local communities, inspired by the ‘act local think global’ mantra.
“I knew there was lots of really interesting things going on across the different neighbourhoods of Reading and when the opportunity came up to apply to work with RVA on a temporary three-month-contract I jumped at the chance. That was over a decade ago and I’m still learning about all the amazing people and groups working across the town.”
The real-life impact
The work that RVA does has a recognisable and real-life impact on the people in the Reading community. Steve said: “My work with RVA has allowed me to see first-hand the positive impact that volunteering can have on both those benefiting from the help but also those offering it.
“For example, early in my time with RVA a young man came to our office to discuss volunteering. He disclosed that he was recovering from a period of mental illness which had resulted in him withdrawing into his parents’ home – which he hadn’t left for over a year until a few weeks before.
“As part of his recovery he was looking for volunteering opportunities to give him a sense of purpose and a reason to get up in the morning. He joined our volunteer team and after 12 months joined our staff team for a short-term project and then moved on to work in the local charitable sector before retraining as a physiotherapist.
“For him, volunteering was a vital component in his recovery, allowing him to slowly challenge himself whilst contributing to helping other individuals and the community.
“The positive impact that the right volunteering opportunity can have on an individual is part of what inspires me in my work and one of the proudest moments of my career so far was being able to attend the wedding of this young man.”
Engaging with the University
Rachel and Steve often find themselves drawn back to the University of Reading as RVA frequently works with the University on their shared goal of helping and engaging with the local community. Various joint projects have included working on the Participation Lab, offering placements for summer interns, working with the University’s Careers and RED Award teams, as well as running partnership projects with the MERL.
Rachel explained why it is important to work with the University and our students. She said:
“The University has a wonderful campus and offering, but it’s important for students to recognise the benefits of the local community around them as well. Getting involved in that community can really enhance their student experience.”
Steve said: “The University is a hugely important part of our town in a number of ways and I would like those who come from across the UK and the world to study here to feel part of our community. Volunteering can be a fantastic way of connecting.
“Moreover, students can make a real and positive impact on individuals and the community by sharing their skills, experience and enthusiasm through getting involved in the community life of the town they will call home for at least the duration of their studies.”
Many people will know that Reading town has at times suffered an unfair reputation, one which Steve himself admits to believing aspects of while growing up here. However, his work through RVA has overhauled his opinion of the town and this is one he wants to share with our students.
Steve said: “It doesn’t take much exploring to discover the unique aspects of our diverse town, at the heart of which are often found small grassroot organisations inspired to make a difference in their neighbourhood.
“Having had the opportunity to visit and live in a variety of different places I’m now able to see what is unique and special about Reading. It is important to me to use the skills I have to support those working to make their bit of our town a great place to live.”
The volunteering exchange
Volunteering is an admirable action to undertake and one with many motivations behind it. Steve said: “A significant part of my role is talking with people to help them explore their motivations to volunteer and to help them identify opportunities that will allow them to satisfy what they aim to achieve from getting involved.
“People often feel that volunteering has to be inspired by purely altruistic reasons but volunteering is always an exchange – it is a simply an exchange in the absence of financial reward.
“Some people volunteer to gain a new skill, others volunteer to get a sense of satisfaction in contributing to a cause that’s important to them. Whatever your motivation, volunteering or working for a charity is an extremely rewarding role.”