Laura receiving her Celebration of Volunteering award

A Beacon Of Volunteerism

CONNECTED speaks to Celebration of Volunteering award winner, alumna Laura Windisch, about her commitment to making a difference – from a listening ear at University of Reading Nightline, to spending her retirement ensuring children have presents at Christmas. 

Laura receiving her award from Chancellor Paul LindleyThe Celebration of Volunteering recognises the volunteering achievements of the University of Reading community – bringing together alumni, students, staff and community partners to celebrate those who have given up their time to help others.

After years of volunteering, it was with great pride that we awarded Laura with an Alumni and Supporter Volunteer of the Year Award. Read on to hear about her volunteering journey.

Something new

Laura’s affinity for volunteering tracks back to 1980 when she pursued a degree in Modern Languages and European Studies at Reading. During her first year, Laura found herself drawn to Nightline, a listening service that offered support to fellow students. Laura recalled: “It was out of my comfort zone because I hadn’t done anything like that before, but I loved it.

“There was a phoneline and a drop-in service that two students would monitor from the basement of St David’s Hall on the London Road Campus. We’d be there from 8pm to 6am for any student who wanted to talk. It was mostly students who were feeling a bit lonely or down and wanted to chat.”

Upon graduating, Laura embarked on a remarkable almost 28-year tenure at the University of Reading, serving in various administrative roles before embracing voluntary redundancy. Laura went on to work at Oxford Brookes University and, in Spring 2019, decided to retire from her role as Head of Admissions, but was uncertain as to what was next for her. She explained:

 “It’s great saying ‘I’m going to retire’ but I didn’t know what I would do with my time, so the idea of volunteering came to me and I thought I’d see what was out there.”

From there, Laura looked on the Reading Voluntary Action (RVA) website for volunteering opportunities. She said: “I hadn’t planned to take anything on at that point because I still had six months left to work. There are hundreds of volunteering opportunities on the RVA website, but the very first one listed was for Reading Family Aid. They were looking for someone to manage their Toys and Teens appeal, which looked like fun.

“The person specification listed all the things I was doing in my current role, like resource planning, resource management, people management, and bringing together different elements of supply and demand and making it all fit together. I expressed my interest and, after a chat with the Chair of the charity, the following day I had the role.

“I later discovered that the reason it was the first job on the RVA website was because it had been added that day. I couldn’t believe it – it felt like the job was destined for me.”

Making a difference

Laura at the Toys and Teens Appeal with the present donatedThe Toys And Teens Appeal helps children living with difficulties in the greater Reading area by distributing toys at Christmas. Last year the charity successfully distributed gifts to 2,500 children.

Laura explained: “In a nutshell, we contact schools, social workers, health visitors, community nurses and charities to ask them if they have children in their care, or children that they know can’t get any Christmas presents that year. With that information, we then ask companies, businesses, organisations and individuals across Reading to consider donating toys or gifts.

“We then allocate the toys and our volunteers sort and pack the toys to get them out to the children.”

The charity also provides outings throughout the year to families who wouldn’t be able to otherwise go. Laura said: “We run about seven outings a year, ranging from farm trips, family beach trips and Christmas pantomimes, to theme parks and camps.

“We work with specific people and organisations to take families on these trips, including Kelvin Husbands who runs a number of youth clubs in the Reading area, Home Start, Reading Refugee Support Group, Berkshire Women’s Aid, FiFi’s Vision and the Weller Centre. All these organisations help us reach out to families who might be facing financial or emotional difficulties.

“We’ve taken families to the beach and sometimes the kids or the parents have never seen the sea before. To then be able to see them play in the sea, eat ice-cream or make a sandcastle, is just amazing. It makes such a difference to those families who can’t afford a day out and don’t get to go on holidays.”

The amazing work of Reading Family Aid won the highest award a charity can receive – the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service – in 2021. Laura said: “It’s such a tiny charity. There’s seven trustees and our committee has about 23 people – there’s no paid staff, no premises, no funding or government grants – we run entirely on donations. I feel we achieve such a lot despite this, so to get this level of recognition is just amazing!”

Beyond her role with Reading Family Aid, Laura also lends a helping hand to elderly individuals through the charity Age UK. She explained: “I shop for two people who struggle to get their shopping, as they’re both in their eighties and have mobility issues. Again, I found this volunteering opportunity on the RVA website.

“I started this during the COVID-19 pandemic as elderly people were advised not to go out, but there are still people who need help and it’s only an hour out of my day.”

Throughout the pandemic Laura also donated her time to the University Medical Practice, calling up patients to book them in for their COVID-19 vaccines, and she helped Activate Learning College in Bracknell to process testing their students for COVID-19 before they could return to school. From helping with shopping to helping students get back into classrooms, Laura’s volunteering knows no bounds.

Feeling good

Laura with her awardFor Laura, it’s as simple as being able to help others that drives her passion for volunteering. She explained: “I know it sounds corny, but I genuinely do enjoy helping others. If someone can do something with my help, that they otherwise couldn’t have, then it’s worth it.”

It is that feeling that she endorses to those considering volunteering. Laura said: “If you’re thinking about volunteering, you’re thinking about it for a reason and you should do it! You’ll make new friends, have new experiences and you will feel good about yourself  – what’s not to love?

“My advice would be to try and find a role that suits your skills, whether that’s talking, listening, planning, driving or gardening.

“If you find a role that uses your skills then you’ll be able to make the biggest difference and find it more fulfilling.”

It is this wealth of dedication to helping others that won Laura the 2024 Celebration of Volunteering Alumni and Supporters Award on 25 April. On hearing that she had won, Laura said: “I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face, it was just amazing. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends at Age UK and Reading Family Aid – they were really proud.”

Interested in volunteering? Find out more about Volunteering with the University of Reading.