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Oral history interview with Jeremy Rees, director of VCS Cymru and volunteer of Radio Cardiff. Interview recorded at Radio Cardiff on 2 March 2017.


The Chronicle Project is a community heritage project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and run by VCS Cymru with the aims to document the history of volunteering in Cardiff, from 1914 to 2014.

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We will now begin recording the interview with Jeremy Rees. The recording takes place on the 2nd March 2017 at Radio Cardiff. The volunteers present are Lara Taffer and Kayleigh Williams. And this recording is being collected as an oral history and will be part of the Chronicle Project, a project led by VCS Cymru and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
KW = Kayleigh Williams (interviewer), JR = Jeremy Rees (interviewee),
LT = Lara Taffer (sound recorder and final question).

Transcript of interview
KW: Jeremy, would you mind introducing yourself please.

[0:26-0:44 : Introduction]

JR: My name is Jeremy Rees. I have a role in VCS. I am currently the director and company secretary of Voluntary Community Services Cymru Limited.

KW: OK, and as director of VCS, what does that entail?

[0:47-0:11 : Role in VCS]

JR: Ahhh. Well, that involves overseeing the strands that are VCS today. VCS has three pillars. One is heritage which is what we are here talking about. Another is volunteering, supported volunteering, particularly breaking down barriers to volunteering for people who are furthest removed from the job market. And the third is community media, giving voice to the local community, principally by, through radio broadcast. So we have projects and services which fall under those three strands. As company secretary I am responsible for overseeing the workings of our board of trustees. We have 12 trustees at VCS and they have a blend of different experiences. We are very proud of our board. It has a broad range of ages, a broad range of backgrounds, and we pride ourselves on being pretty well able to reflect the city of Cardiff in 2017. The three strands each have subcommittees which are now becoming established, and so we have a supported volunteering subcommittee, a community media subcommittee, and soon they'll be joined by the heritage subcommittee. These involve both members of the board of VCS, members of staff at VCS, volunteers, and people who are not connected with VCS but have some expertise in the area concerned. Their role is to scrutinise and look over the work that VCS does in those three strands, but also to be, um, the decision-makers on what we do next. So if somebody has an idea and they want to bid for some money, and they’ve got a project, it goes to those subcommittees, and the subcommittees look through it and either give their ascent, or not. And by that we get a, hopefully, a quite knitted and joined up approach to developing VCS as a community entity.

KW: Wow, that's quite a lot there. Prior to this role, have you been involved in volunteering yourself?

[3:08-5:36 : Volunteering beginnings and influence; experience at psychiatric hospital in Yorkshire]

JR: Yes indeed. Volunteering is something that has been part of my life since I was a teenager. My first volunteering experience many, many years ago was with a hospital radio station in my home town, a place called Morriston in South Wales. And I assisted the presenters on the hospital radio by going around with a clipboard on a Saturday afternoon, round the wards and taking requests from people who were in-patients in the hospital and going back and finding the records that they wanted. And that gave me my first taste, really, of radio which has always been a passion of mine. But volunteering has been a huge part of my life. The career that I'm in, is as a result of volunteering. My social life has been greatly affected by volunteering. I guess who I am today as a person has been greatly affected by my volunteering. I started volunteering as I say when I was 16, a little later than that I started doing voluntary work with homeless people as a volunteer doing any few hours a week. I then applied to a national organisation, CSV, Community Service Volunteers, and I went to be a full-time volunteer for a year. And I worked in Yorkshire, and I worked in a hospital that was closing down, a psychiatric hospital. And my role was to work with people who had been in hospital for many, many years and help them prepare to move out from that hospital and into group-living situations. And I went with them to that group-living and stayed with them for a period of time as well, six at a time. I did that for a year. I then did more full-time volunteering in London and as a result of that began work in the field of social care. So yeah volunteering has been a hugely important part of my life.

KW: And what motivated you to get involved with volunteering?

[5:40-8:42 : Motivation and night shelter]

JR: I think originally it was curiosity, to be quite honest. I mean I think that when I started volunteering for the hospital radio station it was because I was interested in radio, so that was what drove me to go there. I didn't really know what to expect. What I found when I got to the hospital radio station was that it was a charity that had many different people who were involved in it from all kinds of different backgrounds and that introduced me to influences that I wouldn't have otherwise have known, and that expanded my knowledge of my community and the world around me. And that in a way led me to seek more volunteering experiences in a different setting. And so I volunteered in a night shelter for people who were homeless. And as a result of that at that particular time there were a lot of psychiatric hospitals that were closing down, the hospital closure programme which actually started in 1971. But right throughout the 70s and 80s large asylums, as they were originally called, that were built in the Victorian era were closed down and we as a society, as a community were not well equipped to deal with the people who had been long-stay hospital inpatients. And that issue that I think textbooks now call ‘care in the community’ became an acute one. I grew up in a place called Swansea which like a lot of seaside towns and cities across Britain had a fair number of bed and breakfast hotels and became a magnet for people who were effectively homeless and rootless because their place of tenure had been a psychiatric hospital. And many of them ended up unfortunately living on the streets because they couldn't cope with living, ah, in the conditions that a hotel would have expected. And so I met people in the night shelter in Swansea that were affected by long-term severe and enduring mental illness, which I knew little about. And my experience of helping and volunteering there, of helping the support staff, was to find out more about it, because I felt frankly outraged about the way people that were treated. And that sense of, um, injustice, anger really, as a young man led me to try and seek answers and find a way of… I suppose I thought I was trying to help change the world in a way,, yeah I think that became, I became…volunteering and being politically active came hand-in-hand in my experience in my early 20s.

KW: So, you mentioned you were in Yorkshire and you were in London, how did you end up coming back to Cardiff then? Was that through any volunteering or work or…

[8:55-10:26 : Trustee and Radio Cardiff]

JR: Well, I have always done volunteering of one form or another. I still to this day volunteer. And so when I became a professional staff member in a social action charity, I still did some volunteering for personal growth reasons I suppose. I have always done bits and pieces. In my later life, and most of that volunteering has involved being a trustee. So I have been on several boards of organisations that I feel a sympathy for, in terms of their cause and their reason. And so I have been doing that for many years. I am currently on the board of CAVAMH, which is Cardiff and Vale Action for Mental Health. I ended a five-year stint on the board of the Race Equality First, the race Equality Council for Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan last June. And I have been a volunteer in radio, a volunteer presenter and producer and writer here at Radio Cardiff, the community radio station for Cardiff, since it started in 2007.

[10:26-12:08 : Support worker and manager in London]

But what brought me back to Wales was I had a long career in London. I worked originally as a support worker, working with people who were street homeless and then people with mental health issues. And then I went into management and started running residential and day care provisions. And then, I, probably the best job I've ever had, apart from the one I'm in now of course, was running a place called the Haven which was a crisis house for people with mental health issues who were in crisis, which was an alternative to hospital and included a through the night, open access drop-in centre which was open from eight in the evening till eight in the morning, seven nights a week, 365 nights a year. And people who were desperate, feeling suicidal, would come and would seek the comfort of being with other people in a safe environment which was an incredibly powerful thing. And although it was an incredibly stressful job in many, many ways, it was probably the job that I got most fulfilment out of. I did that for three years. And then I moved into senior management which involved making lots of big contracts and going out and tendering for contracts and wearing a suit, and a tie and sitting in an office for my working week, which I did for five years.

[12:08-13:25 : Hiraeth]

And at the end of the five-year period I thought, probably that's enough for me in that kind of environment. I was by that time in my early 40s and London, which I'd loved living in as a young person was beginning to be, ah, less attractive as a place to be. And they call it hiraeth, the call of Wales, and I followed that hiraeth in 2007 and returned with my family to live here in Cardiff and, yeah, at that point did I? Yes I did volunteer in 2007 in two ways. I joined an arts association in my local community. I first moved to an area called Adamsdown in Cardiff and was involved in the setting up of the Adamstown Arts Association and then, in October 2007, I came to Radio Cardiff, ‘Cardiff's first community radio station’, and started volunteering as a presenter and a producer here.

[13:26-15:58 : Radio Cardiff]

And so my first assignment here at Radio Cardiff was covering the very first Black History Month celebrations that had been organised in the city, or certainly the first for about 50 years, which took place in Butetown in what was then the old Butetown youth pavilion, there is now a lovely new Butetown youth pavilion but this was a different building. And I covered that and interviewed people and got samples of music and the events that were going on there and brought it back to the studio and we played it out. And I got involved in the news. I was asked to read the news and interview people. My first interview in the studio here was of a gentleman called Vladimir Špidla. Vladimir Špidla was the former president of the European Union [Vladimir Špidla was European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, 2004 – 2010], a former president of the Czech republic. Radio Cardiff, like a lot of community resources, was funded by the ESF, the European Social Fund and Mr Špidla was on a tour of the United Kingdom of projects that had been funded by the European Social Fund and so I was told the day before he was arriving and would I interview him. So we did an interview. And it was very interesting because he came with a press entourage, a film crew. He didn't speak English, or at least I thought he didn't speak English, because he had a translator with him, and it was only my second day here really and there I was interviewing a pretty significant politician which was…it was interesting. Actually it started off, I had prepared my questions beforehand and I asked my questions and the translator translated them into Czech and then he answered them and it went on like that for a few questions and I thought this really isn't going to be very interesting radio. And then, I don't know how it happened, I got him onto the subject of jazz and it turned out he was a bit of a jazz fan. And when we started talking about jazz music and his love for it, which he did… actually he started to use what English he had then, at that point as well, it became a much more interesting and animated conversation. And I remember that quite distinctly.

[15:58-17:32 : Community drama (Sophia Square)]

So did the news and I did some radio documentaries here and, um, I coordinated the news team for seven years, and I'd always wanted to do drama with a community. And one of the things we did here was a soap opera, which was written by community members and acted by community members. It was called Sophia Square. It was a fictional area of the Bay as we call this area. And it was an absolutely… it was very, very hard work but we did three series and I think about 48 episodes of Sophia Square. We had tremendous support from the BBC, from professional actors, from directors and it was an utter joy to gather people together from the local community and often translate what had been real experiences in their lives into dramatic form and to see it again played out by community actors, many of whom had never acted before. And it was interesting because around that time the BBC started developing its production arm in Cardiff and several of those people who were involved in Sophia Square went on to become the supporting artists and indeed acting in BBC productions that are made here in Cardiff. So, yeah, that's been my volunteering since I've been back in Wales.

KW: All right, and how do you think then this volunteering has benefited the Welsh community?

[17:40-20:05 : Benefits of volunteering]

JR: I think volunteering binds communities together. And I think, to use Radio Cardiff as an example. Radio Cardiff is a community radio station with quite a distinct identity. But if you come to Radio Cardiff, you will find volunteers here who range in age from 17 to 73, people from a whole range of different backgrounds, people from different cultural backgrounds, people from different educational backgrounds, people who have had a vast array of different experiences, working together on radio projects. And that sense of cohesion is something which is incredibly powerful. Cardiff is proudly one of the oldest multicultural cities in the United Kingdom and that way of bringing in, accepting people who have got different perspectives, different viewpoints and learning from it is something I think that is really very, very important to us as a city, and volunteering enables that to happen. It enables us to connect with our neighbours, it enables communities to actually relate to one another. And it gives people a sense of purpose, a sense that life has a meaning outside going to work and earning a living and paying the mortgage and doing the things that we do in a very busy lifetime now. I think previous generations had more time than people do today. And to carve out some of that time in a very pressured life to volunteer gives an opportunity for people to interact with others, to connect with other people from the community that actually isn't that easy to find in the busy hustle and bustle of everyday life.

KW: Okay. Whilst you’ve volunteered then, you've mentioned some very positive stories. Have you ever encountered any frustrations or any challenges?

[20:22-23:37 : Challenges]

JR: Yes. Probably the thing that I remember most was when I was working as a volunteer in the night shelter. I was working with somebody who was quite mentally unwell and I didn't know how to deal with that person. And the way in which I dealt with that person, who was getting very angry, was not the right way to deal with somebody who was getting really angry and it resulted in him getting angrier and hitting me. So I learned from that: that that was not the right approach. There are probably better ways of learning, I was 18 at the time and I… the person who I was dealing with was a man in his 60s, I suppose. And I hadn't realised I think at the time how I was coming across to him as a young person trying to alleviate a situation. And I learnt that I didn't know how to deal with people in that kind of circumstance. I didn't do that again. I didn't try to assert myself as an 18-year-old to a 63-year-old gentleman even though he was, what he was doing was not in order, not appropriate. By asserting myself in a way that I thought would get him to calm down, had the opposite effect. It wasn't my role; volunteers shouldn’t be doing that. So I overstepped my role. I didn't, I wasn’t mindful of what the setting was and I hope that today that wouldn't happen, because I hope that today most volunteering takes place in places where the role of volunteer has been clearly defined, where there are, there are clear boundaries about where, where you, what kind of situation you find yourself in as a volunteer. That was absent, and I think that was absent because we as a country were learning; a lot of things in those days were not regulated. A lot of things were ‘let's give it a go’, and we've learnt and I think collectively VCS, which has been around since 1964 and was the first volunteer bureau in Britain, was one of the organisations that help draw that kind of experience together and produce guidelines and procedures that mean that volunteering is a safer and more well-defined role.

KW: OK, and except for the regulations you just mentioned then, how would you say volunteering has changed over the decades that you have been involved?

[23:48-27:29 : Changes in volunteering]

JR: Well, volunteering has become a way of developing skills to help people become more employable. And so, far more people enter volunteering now than was the case 20 years ago. But their motivation for doing it is often different. So here in the city of Cardiff we’ve got a very, very high proportion of people who volunteer; one in four people in the city of Cardiff volunteer. But we have a very high number of students in the city of Cardiff and many of them volunteer. Many school, school-aged children volunteer through the Welsh baccalaureate, which is wonderful. But of course their volunteering is often related to a course they are doing, is often time-limited and constrained and has a beginning and an end and has a purpose beyond giving time for a community on a basis that doesn't have clear, set definitions. And I think that that's the major change, that there is… there is far more volunteering, there is far more choice in volunteering than was ever there before, but it's become more competitive, actually. A lot of places, because there are so many volunteers who want to come and assist them, they competitively interview people for volunteering placements. I can understand that because, you know, charities and organisations want to have the people who’ve got the best skills to come in and help their charities flourish. The downside of that is that it becomes less easy for people furthest removed from the job market who may have barrier, to get into volunteering. So if you’ve had a mental health problem, or if you've got in trouble with the law and you’ve been in prison or if you're a refugee, or an asylum seeker and you don't have references, and you can't go through the CRB check process because it isn't possible, or you don't have security of tenure, and you can't commit to being somewhere for a lengthy period of time because you don't know whether next week you are going to be moved to a different city. It means for those people it's more difficult now to get into volunteering than it was five, ten, twenty years ago. And that is a worry, I think. It's what we at VCS attempt to redress. So our role is to break down the barriers to volunteering for people who find it difficult to get placements. Because although volunteering is wonderful for everyone, it is a life changing experience often. Volunteering will help personal growth, will help confidence, and yes it makes people more employable but it also has those other factors as well. And because it's become competitive now, we exist to make sure that the people who are furthest away from, um, employment and economic sustainability as individuals have a chance.

KW: And bearing all that in mind then, and if, you know, you bumped into somebody who was looking to volunteering and, you know, had their concerns, what words of wisdom or advice would you have for them?

[27:44-33:06 : Advice to potential volunteers]

JR: Well, oh, words of wisdom! Haha! I think my experience of sitting across a desk in Cardiff Volunteer Bureau and seeing people who had come in and often would have that, that view ‘I'm not really sure what I want to do, but I think I want to volunteer’. It's good to be aware of what volunteering is, and what it isn't, and to have some kind of understanding of the different types of volunteering that exist before putting yourself in a situation where you are having to say “I want to do A”, “I want to do B”. So research, I would say, would be my first piece of advice, rather than wisdom. See what's out there. If you've got a particular interest or a particular hobby or something that you feel particularly passionate about or there’s a cause that you really care about, it may well be that that should be where your volunteering is sited, because you've already got something that is going to motivate you to volunteer in that particular area. So do your research. These days it's very easy to do the research on the internet and in Wales on Volunteering Wales which is the database that is available to search for volunteering opportunities. And very often you will then find what you're looking for. But if you're not sure, it's always good to ask for advice. Many, many times I've talked with people who have an idea of what they want to volunteer in, but it may be a little unrealistic. So it's good to have a reality check sometimes, what is out there and what it's really like. The next thing I'd suggest is if you're not sure, try it out. Talk to somebody who's already volunteering in that area. Do a taster. For example if you want to volunteer in a cats home, because you like cats; actually cats can be quite violent, they have bodily functions which need to be cleaned up, and as a volunteer your probably going to have to deal with both those things. You’re probably going to have to deal with a bit of a smell. And if these kind of things are not your cup of tea, or if seeing animals in distress is not your cup of tea, or seeing animals who are sick and ill and who’ve had stories which are, you know, involve cruelty, because that's what you're going to find in a cats home, then it probably isn't for you. So it's about a reality check about what actually is there and what you may think is there, so that you get a clear idea. Again these days you can find that information out pretty easily because everywhere has, or just about everywhere, has got really good information online and videos. So you get an understanding. But volunteering is a broad church. Volunteering doesn't have to be formal, a lot of volunteering is informal, probably most volunteering is informal, going around and helping the elderly person who lives across the road because she can't go out and do her shopping. That's volunteering, but you don't sign up for it. Formal volunteering is something which is defined as contributing to a purpose, or to a role, not for payment. Volunteering is additional to any services that may be provided by an organisation through paid staff. There is a distinct difference between volunteering and working on a paid basis for an organisation. And that's one of the things that has become a little bit blurred in the past few years because of the development of well, number one, internships which is a form of volunteering, but also the growing demand from people who want to volunteer in order to get skills in a particular form of work. And that has…there’s been a bit of a tendency to develop volunteering as a job, which is fine in many ways and very, very helpful in terms of developing a career path but it does blur the line a little between what is volunteering and what isn't. Um,yeah.

KW: OK, so you've touched upon this slightly, but I want to see if we can get a very short, defined definition. In one sentence, how would you define the term ‘volunteering’?

[33:20-33:39 : Definition of volunteering]

JR: Volunteering in one sentence? [pause] ‘Contributing to the greater good without personal gain, in a financial sense.’

KW: I like that you stuck to a sentence, thank you.

JR: That's all right.

KW: I don't have any other questions to ask you, is there anything else you would like to add that we haven't touched upon already?

[33:51-36:05 : Time credit culture]

JR: I think it's really positive that this record is being made at this particular time because it's a really interesting time for volunteering. One thing we haven't talked about is time credits, time banking, which is probably in Wales and I would say in London today, 2017, one of the most significant areas of ‘volunteering' in inverted commas. Time credits are where you get a reward for hours of volunteering which enables you to get the equivalent of a cash payment to go to the cinema or go to the gym or whatever, credits. It has been a very successful way of engaging people. And in Wales it is being driven by a program called Communities First, which is a Welsh government funded programme, most of the funding for which comes from the European Union. Now in the years and months to come, the money that funds that, unless something remarkable happens, is going to dry up. And if that happens, I worry about the culture that time banking and time credits leave behind. Because if it is not possible to sustain it, will people still volunteer without getting credits? I don't have an answer to that, but I think it's a question that this project and others should be tracking, because in years to come I think it's going to be a useful thing for people who are planning volunteering and third sector services in the future to consider. I don't have a… I have seen really good time banking, I have to say, but it is a pertinent issue. That's my last point. [Laughs]

LT: I have a quick question.

JR: Oh, go on.

LT: Could you describe the relationship, in the way that you view it, between community engagement and volunteering? There is a difference, I think, in the terms but I don't know if I'm just placing that on the world. Is there a difference in community engagement and volunteering?

[36:27-39:49 : Community engagement and volunteering]

JR: Yes, I’d say that they are quite different things although they can… community engagement can involve volunteering. But community engagement, getting people involved in thinking about how services are delivered, how the communities around them are run, in decision-making, in the decision-making process. In a way it's volunteering because you're not getting paid for it, but community engagement is a bigger thing, and it's something that I certainly feel very passionately about, because we learn from experience. Or at least it’s a good idea if we learn from experience. And if we talk to communities about initiatives, communities are made up of individuals, and the pool of experience that’s out there is going to be considerable. So if we can learn from how things have run in the past by talking to people and experiencing from their point of view what works and what doesn't, it helps us to mould what we do. I think from a volunteer bureau point of view, community engagement is what connects us to our grassroots. VCS certainly is a grassroots organisation, but if you look at the wider field of the voluntary sector, the third sector, public sector these days, the way in which the trend is to develop a more business orientated approach. So we are seeing smaller organisations either merge or disappear and we’re seeing larger, slicker, more professional organisations, charities and what-not coming in and delivering services which used to be delivered locally by local groups. And the issue is that if you aren’t careful, that there will be a disconnect between that approach and the actual community on the ground. If you have a disconnect, sooner or later it’ll stop working. And I think that's something that we, certainly at VCS, will be…we are on a mission to avoid. We need to be as connected to people as possible. We need to be really aware of what the situation is on the ground, and if there are barriers, and we’ve talked a little bit in this about some of the barriers that are out there at the moment for people who are going into volunteering, we need to be aware of what they are so that we can start to prepare approaches to break those barriers down. Does that answer your question?


JR: Thank you.

[39:52 – 40:05 :Farewell and thanks]

KW: OK, well I think we've asked everything that we needed to ask so thank you very much for taking time out to speak to us today.

JR: It's been a pleasure!

KW: Thank you

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