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Oral history interview with Lindsay Brewis about her volunteering with SNAP Cymru.

Interview recorded at SNAP Cymru's Cardiff office on 19 January, 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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[Audio Header]
We will now begin recording the interview with Lindsay Brewis.
• The recording takes place on the 17th January 2017 at SNAP headquarters.
• The volunteers present are Lara Taffer and Rob Boddy.
• And this recording is going to be 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.

RB = Rob Boddy (interviewer), LT = Lara Taffer (volunteer), LB = Lindsay Brewis (interviewee)

Transcript of interview
RB: Lyndsay, if you could give us your name and tell us where you were born?
[0:23 - 0:34 : Lindsay introduces herself]

LB: My name is Lindsay Brewis and I was born in Radyr, just outside Cardiff, so I was at that stage a local girl – I’m not anymore, but there you go.
RB: You’re obviously working for SNAP now, could you just tell us a little bit about the organisation and its history.
[0:39 - 3-12 : SNAP’s history]

LB: Oh yes – back in 1986 the national charities Scope and Mencap were being inundated with calls from parents in Wales about the difficulties of navigating special educational needs pathways to extra support assessment and good practice, and they obtained a Lottery fund to set up SNAP Cymru – the Special Needs Advisory Project as it was then (it’s not a project anymore).

I think they got three back to back Lottery funds to keep them going in the first years until they established themselves and got some more statutory funding. I went to the second ever meeting – there were two inaugural meetings, the first was in Swansea where it all sort of kicked off from, and then the second one was in Pontypridd. And as a member of the local authority and as an advisory teacher for parents and children with special educational needs, I went to that second inaugural meeting. Mid Glamorgan, as it was then, signed up to become a partner and promote the use of SNAP Cymru to the parents we were in contact with. So I took it up from there as the promotional person, to keep in touch with SNAP Cymru, encourage parents to use the service. Being an advice giver myself, I was very strongly in favour of having an independent voice, so that I said “Parents, go and check me out.

If they’re telling you anything different than I’m telling you, then one of us is wrong and we need to find out who’s wrong because actually the rules apply – the rules apply, that’s it. It isn’t like they’ve got their rules and we’ve got our rules, the rules apply,” and I found that an incredible safeguard for myself as an officer of the authority, for the authority and for the parents. And it worked really, really well, and I’ve supported them ever since. So I left the local authority in 1996 and went to work for Scope as an education advisor and of course at that point they still had a seat on the board, and as the education advisor and I lived in Wales, I got that seat on the board, so I became a Trustee in 1996.
RB: So you’ve been involved basically form the start.

LB: Almost from day one.
RB: In terms of … we’ve obviously spoken to some of the volunteers who work for SNAP, and they have their own views about how they fit into the organisation … what contribution do you think they as volunteers make to SNAP?
[3:31 - 5:26 : volunteers make the best employees]

LB: It’s incalculable. First of all it brings diversity into our workforce (we don’t pay very much for a charity). It means that retired people, or people wanting to get back into the workforce, people seeking to diversify their life/work experiences, and particularly parent who’ve gone through the pain and difficulty of sorting out your child’s needs being met, come to us and bring all that life experience to us: they are empathetic, they’re prepared to listen. Parents immediately bond with them, even if it’s just over the phone or through a text. They know they are talking to someone who’s been down that road.

Basically, they make the best employees, because when they come to us they learn from us – we give them all the training we give our staff. So they have their diverse backgrounds, they have their passion for supporting schools, families and young people and they give it freely. I think there’s something about being a parent talking to someone who is giving this freely, who isn’t there to make a buck, or who isn’t there to massage figures, or point you in a direction. They’re there because they care passionately and that comes across every single time, and the families … the feedback from families is “I knew I was talking to someone who understood. I knew I was talking … this person understood where I was coming from. They’ve stepped in my shoes, they’ve done my journey.” We can’t afford to employ that many people with that sort of expertise and passion – I wish we could.
RB: You mention this expertise and passion and that’s obviously come over in some of the interviews that we’ve already done, but they need something else, they need some training – what sort of training do you provide?
[5:38 - 8:37 : A whole range of training]

LB: We provide a twelve-day induction course over the first three months of their time with us. So that’s usually two two-day formal courses with an experienced member of staff or an experienced volunteer, so I could provide these courses for example, taking place as close to where they’re going to be working from as possible, so it’s a travelling fayre around the country, taking place bilingually for those who may have Welsh as their first language.
We start off with the basics – what are special or additional learning needs; what is the law; what are the regulations; what are the rights and responsibilities. So initially, that’s where they start with the sort of training, that’s sort of four days training. Then they spend another eight days researching their own local area and finding out how that … So for example, in Ceredigion they don’t have a special school in Ceredigion, so if you’re training a volunteer or member of staff from Ceredigion, they have to go off and research that they don’t have a special school.

They can’t tell parents “Oh, you’ll have a special school, your child …, “ – they have to know their own area. Those further eight days lead to a Level 2 accreditation. Also then they are evaluated - so somebody, a senior member of staff or a senior volunteer would sit with them whilst they are talking with parents on the phone, and evaluate their … not their competence, but their confidence. And one of the volunteers you saw this morning, it took her four weeks with us before she would answer the phone: she’s one of the most competent people we’ve got now. But her competence was always there, but her confidence had taken a knock. So we build their competence, we mentor, we pair them up with others, we train them. From there you can go on to take any training.

People must take mediation training, they must take advocacy training if they want to go into those areas. Exclusion training is offered to everybody. There’s a whole range of training that we offer. We offer disability specific training, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autistic spectrum disorder, or working with parents of children with Down’s syndrome. And if they’re interested in those areas they can come along. We have a huge success rate in people either becoming employed by us or actually going on and getting very good jobs, probably better paid jobs elsewhere, because our training is well recognised, and local authorities send their staff on our training as well.
RB: You mentioned that part of the training was to research the local area, do you think those links between volunteers and their community is something that can be strengthened by volunteers working within the community?
[8:56 - 10:52 : importance of community in volunteering]

LB: Absolutely – it’s a very important part. For example, downstairs two people you’ve already met were talking about an asylum seeker, and saying that he really wanted to learn a musical instrument, and immediately they were searching their knowledge of the local community to see where they might get him a free musical instrument, and where they might get him free tuition, and how that could happen for him. Now the strength of belonging to a community is brought in to SNAP Cymru, and particularly through our shops. You’re not unfortunately interviewing shop volunteers today, although you could if you wanted to take this further.
Is that these people are very much of their communities – they know about their communities and very often people will walk in off the street and see our shop and start talking to us about what they want to do, what we do and say “Well I could give you a few hours and volunteer.” Now these people bring a tremendous strength of their presence in the community, and this feeds through into the casework because we have a very broad base to draw on when we’re looking at how do we support … support for a family doesn’t just come from the school.

You know you’re not going to beat poverty and deprivation and despair from nine ‘til half-past three, no matter how good the school is. Family support comes from the network around the family. The more we know about those networks, the more we can point people in the direction of “Well you might get support here,” or “This church, even though it may not be the church you belong to has a very, very good community support. You might want to go there, and they would help you.” So that knowledge, that intimate knowledge being passed out to those in need is a vital part of volunteering isn’t it. You can’t get away from it.
RB: From what you’re saying, it doesn’t sound as though you have to recruit volunteers, most of them just turn up and come to you, but if you do have to recruit how do you go about it?
[11:04 - 13:37 : seeking specialist volunteers]

LB: Well we go to recruitment fayres, so anything organised you know – the Community Service Volunteers might organise. We advertise on things like WCVA in the various local areas and they keep a database of our current volunteering opportunities. But we do need to recruit some volunteers. A listening and sympathetic ear only goes so far. There are complex cases where families are in desperate need of very particular regulatory advice - for example, what is appealable at the Special Needs Tribunal Wales. Now, if you can get an ex-special needs teacher or special needs advisor, or special needs co-ordinator as we do have in our volunteer group, these people already come with that knowledge, and therefore if they meet a complex case they don’t have to go and seek advice. A listening ear would always have a trained and experienced member of staff or volunteer (we don’t discriminate between paid and unpaid people – it’s what you can do that counts).

So in their early days the team downstairs would pop up and see me and say “What’s the regulation on this?” because they knew I would have it in my head – much quicker than going to look it up. We have some very experienced volunteers who come with a wealth of background knowledge, and sometimes we actively recruit those particularly for our helpline, because at helpline, they come from all over Wales, sometimes from other countries seeking to move into Wales, wanting to know what the set-up is and how it differs, what they need to do. Presenting you with anything from “I’m a bit worried about my child,” to “I’ve got a tribunal next week and I don’t know what to do.” So it could be the whole gamut, and the helpline staff and volunteers need to have some knowledge in their heads otherwise they spend an awful lot of time looking-up and asking. So yes, we do actively seek specialist volunteers and probably always will. It takes time to train your own – they can get there, but it takes time.
RB: You’ve obviously got a really full working life at the moment, but in terms of your personal experience of volunteering, do you do volunteering work?
[13:46 - 14:21 : full time volunteer]

LB: I am volunteer. I started volunteering as a member of NAC of Scope in 1996, I became vice chair a few years later. I am a trustee on the National Advisory Council. I volunteered as a trustee and in pieces of individual work and training throughout the years that I worked, but just over four and a half years ago I retired and since then I’ve been a full time volunteer, I come in every day.
[14:25 Need to take a quick break]
RB: Could you tell us just a little about what volunteering means to you?
[14:29 - 17:45 : volunteering is rewarding]

LB: Well, I think that … I can remember volunteering as a child with a church youth group and we used to go down to a Leonard Cheshire Home, to just talk to the residents really. And I can remember that being my first introduction to volunteering, when I was probably fourteen or fifteen. That was something that was really important to what we did then. I’ve had a very, very busy work life, and I think that I found SNAP Cymru through my work, both with the local authority and when I went to work with Scope, being so closely associated. But once I got into this line of work, it absolutely resonates with everything that I’ve wanted to do and done in both my working and volunteering life. It’s about empowering people to have the courage and the confidence to put forward their views for their child, to make sure that they feel that someone gives them back control over what is chaos when they often come to us. So volunteering for me fills an incredible need in my personality, that I need to help people. It’s part of me: it’s not a good thing or bad thing, it is a thing that is embedded in the way that I have lived all my life – the way I’ve worked, my family, my extended family.

The other volunteering I did was for the EF Foundation, Educational Foundation, where they look for volunteer families to take on students for a year, from abroad. I think at that time we worked with that foundation as volunteer families. We probably had twelve or fourteen young people come and live with us for at least ten months of a year, as family. I’m still in touch with some of those young people, who are now in their forties and fifties. So I think I’ve always done this. SNAP Cymru volunteering is incredibly rewarding, I think because of the data that we keep and the service that we do, we do get the feedback that you don’t always get. You get the feedback from the people telling you that you’ve helped them make a difference for their child. That’s one of the most rewarding things. It’s just a great family to come to. You leave your own great family, and you come into a different great family and everybody helps everybody else. It’s a really nice place to be. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to be with us to be quite honest – it’s lovely.
RB: You mentioned that your first experience of volunteering was as a child, going to a Leonard Cheshire Home, what inspired you to do that? Was that something within the family, or was something you thought of?
[17:55 - 18:47 : Always gravitated towards helping children with special needs]

LB: The church youth club had an ethos of introducing young people to volunteering and they gave you different ways in which you could volunteer. I did the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award for example, and that volunteering as part of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award – they set up volunteering opportunities. As a child I always gravitated towards the children who had special needs, in school, in the playground, and wanted to help them. So as a teenager, being offered the opportunity to volunteer in a Leonard Cheshire Home, and interact with people who perhaps had been isolated from families and friends, seemed like a good thing, and it was a wonderful thing to do. I think it was a fantastic charity to go and volunteer for at that point in my life.
RB: Volunteering has obviously played a major part in your life throughout, do you think that’s inspired other people you know or members of your family to go on and volunteer?
[18:58 - 21:02 : the whole family get involved]

LB: Well yes, my oldest son came to volunteer for Scope when I was working there, when I was working out of one of the Scope schools in Cardiff, he came to volunteer there, and introduced off-ground touch to children in wheelchairs. The head teacher came to tell me he said “You want to come and see what your son is doing in our hall.” I was going “Oh my gosh, I’ve let him loose on all these children in wheelchairs, what’s he doing!” I think he was about fifteen at the time. And when I got in there he had organised off-ground touch for children in wheelchairs, and he had everybody running about – all the staff, all the learning support assistants, and the children, screaming with laughter. He’d just put mats down and so you wheeled the wheelchair onto a mat to be off-ground. And that was just a real celebration you know.
My daughter used to volunteer with me when I worked in a special school, and she used to come to the … I used to be a trustee for Mencap when I was younger, and she used to come along there to help with the children. She’s now an Alzheimer’s nurse, has gone on to give back to the community and I think that comes from her contact with people with special needs.
My son George came here as a volunteer when I was unwell, and my role and another role had disappeared – he came to do that and he now works for us, and continues to help in his spare time – he often comes in with me on a Saturday if I need him.
And my daughter Lorelai, who has her own mental health problems, volunteers in her own way by disseminating surveys on the internet and getting people interested in events by doing that in her own way, because she’s agoraphobic and doesn’t want to leave the house. Yes, my whole family had been involved in volunteering and I think are the better for it. It doesn’t make you a better person, but it makes you feel better about being the person you are.
RB: It can’t all be tea and cake, there must be frustrations – what do you find frustrating about it?
[21:11 - 32:14 : charities need support through funding]

LB: I think I find frustrating the reliance that the statutory authorities place on charities who add value through volunteering. Comments like, “Well, even if we don’t fund you, you’ll still be there because you’ve got volunteers and your volunteers will carry on doing this work. We don’t need to fund you.” Well, people like me don’t cost as much as a member of staff costs, but we still have costs. We have to have a building to come to, we have to have a team around us, we have to have training. Scope pays the appropriate expenses for volunteers: there is a meal allowance, there is a mileage allowance. We don’t exist in isolation. You need a body of people moving in a direction, in order to join. You don’t suddenly start to do this from your back room – that doesn’t happen. And I do think that governmental apathy in naming the third sector and all its volunteer support. Volunteering doubles the outcome of SNAP Cymru, there’s no doubt about it. So we are paid to do so much, and we double that though volunteering. But apathy in thinking that this just happens will result in it not being there when they want it. That is a frustration and a real sorrow because I have seen very, very good charities go to the wall. Charities on which people depended. Charities on which local and national government depended, and suddenly they’re looking around and saying “Well, they used to do this, and they used to do that, and we used to refer …”, yes, you used to. It’s not free – it’s cheap, but it’s not free.
RB: What about the admin side of it, is that something people get bogged down in, is it something they find frustrating? I know that lots of volunteers and voluntary organisations have to go through hoops to get things done.
[23:32 - 26:13 : valuing every hour that volunteers put in]

LB: It is. Charities like ours can’t afford full time HR departments, so keeping a record of charitable giving, the hours, is really down to volunteers filling in their time sheets, and volunteers don’t like filling in their time sheets, particularly when many of them who walk perhaps to and bring a sandwich to work, don’t claim. We have lots of volunteers who claim nothing to which their entitled. Now if they’ve done that, they don’t see why they should fill their hours in on a time sheet, and therefore there can be a frustration in actually valuing the volunteering appropriately when we come to looking at volunteering as adding value. We know there are many, and our trustees are worst at this, you say “How many hours have you…?”, “Oh, well we had a two hour meeting,” and I said “Yeah, but how much reading did you do for that two hour meeting?”, “Oh, well you sent me a pile…”, “So how long did it take you to read that?”, “Oh, that took me about six hours,”, “Well that’s volunteering!” So they think it’s just turning up that’s volunteering.

Actually volunteering is commitment. You may spend three hours on the train getting here and you’ve read all the papers – now that’s three hours of volunteering, because you wouldn’t be ready for the meeting if you hadn’t read all the papers. So trying to get volunteers to value what they give can be quite … “Oh, I just popped in and did a couple of hours. There’s no point in writing that down.”. but actually every hours counts. We do value volunteering – we’ve got the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Award for volunteering. We were the only charity purely Welsh-based to get that award in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Year, and we’re very, very proud of that. We value our volunteers, we give them training, we give them good reference when they move on. Sometimes they dip in and out, and that’s absolutely fine. Yeah, there’s always paperwork – there’s no more paperwork to volunteering than staff – they are people, and people have to be protected in the workplace and that means you have to keep account of them, you have to look after them, you have to mentor them. You can’t take on a volunteer and give them a pile of papers and say “Get on with it, “, they’re not going to come back. If you spend time with them and you tell them “Wow, look what we’ve done today because of you,”, they’re going to come aren’t they. And that’s where we want to be with our volunteers.
RB: Could you perhaps chat about what you think SNAP’s impact has had within Cardiff, within the Cardiff community?
[26:24 - 28:39 : Cardiff play a big part in the impact SNAP has had]

LB: Well I think it’s had a big impact because we couldn’t reach … already this year, after six months, in Cardiff we had reached six hundred families. There is no way that paid staff on their own can do this, so I think the impact in Cardiff is huge. It means that, more often than not, there is somebody to go to an important meeting, there is somebody to sit on an important panel and make sure that the parents’ view is represented, and at the same time there is somebody to answer the phone to the desperate parent who’s ringing in. Now, you can’t be in two places at once. All of these things are important and the team of Cardiff volunteers and Cardiff staff work together as one to make sure that as often as possible we are in two places at once, because we aim to double up our capacity through volunteering. I think also that it’s been an outlet for parents of children with special needs who can volunteer for us, to gain the skills to make career changes, to gain confidence in thinking of going back to work, and in Cardiff there is very often work to be done but changing careers or changing pathways is difficult. Through volunteering I know a number of people who have either come to work for us, or who have changed pathways and gone on to do incredible things. One of our original volunteers is the director of SNAP Cymru. One of our first volunteers went to work for the Children’s Commissioner. So Cardiff has played an enormous part, because it’s got such a big and varied caseload the training people get here is excellent – if they’re shiners we polish them up and they can shine.
RB: We’ve kind of touched on this before in terms of what volunteers bring to volunteering, and what they get out of it, but could you just give us your pocket definition of volunteering?
[28:50 - 29:50 : Receiving and giving]

LB: Volunteering is a gift. It’s something that people give freely. It’s something that they give because they care. Volunteers receive respect, value, enhancement. And also they have a chance to magnify what they care about, in the real world, so that they can go out and genuinely support change. Working people are more restricted in supporting change – they have less control over how, when and where they will support the changes they want to see happen. So this two-way street of receiving and giving is in constant flux, it’s in constant motion, and that’s the dynamic of volunteering that is so exciting.
RB: Thank you very much, I think we’re done with the questions. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
[29:55 - 29:57]

LB: No, it’s been a pleasure to meet you, thank you.

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