For my community input, me and my peers volunteered for GAMH Young Carers. This is a program created for children and young people whose parents are suffering from some form of addiction or mental/physical illness. Due to this these parents are unable to be there for their children and provide them with support and comfort. Children can be referred by Schools, CHAMS and doctors if they feel they are at risk of developing depression or a mental illness. The group that I volunteered with were aged 9-12. The whole aim of this organisation is early intervention and prevention. So, for my volunteering activity I attended one of the groups that were held weekly. I went during the week of Halloween and so appropriately we were carving out pumpkins. The children had participated in this activity last year and so were well informed on the details. The activity was mentored by three adults. One aspect I found surprising was the informal relationship that the children had with their mentors. I think apart of me had an expectation that the environment would be more “educational” and “formal”, however what I learned whilst spending time with children is that this was the opposite. The children and mentors had a very familiar and friendly relationship where the mentors deviated from the traditional authoritative role. These children come to these activities for a break away from their school and home lives allowing them to develop skills and qualities such as confidence, resilience and most importantly a positive and healthy wellbeing. The most challenging aspect of this evening was communicating with the children. The group was a modest number of 14, however many of these children were quite quiet and mainly spoke to their friends. I wanted to help, so instead of asking the children if they required assistance, I asked one of them If they could help me scoop out the pumpkins “guts” as they called it. I tried to initiate conversation and make small talk, this was very effective as we talked about pumpkins and just Halloween. I kept the conversation light and steered it away from topics I thought would be personal. Halloween is not a festival that I celebrate so carving a pumpkin was completely new to me. A lot of children came to my rescue guiding me on what to do, whilst also asking for help on the “tricky parts” like cutting out the eyes. I was able to make jokes about what a horrible job I was doing, and many children laughed and agreed. I had to remind myself that this was not a classroom, and though it resembled one in many ways, (children were wearing school uniforms, there were mentors) there was no learning intention or success criteria, it was simply an activity that the children could enjoy and at the end of it, take a hand craved pumpkin home. This was a different and challenging experience as I wasn’t sure what my role was (teacher or friend) but as time went on, I realised that I took on both roles, I helped when I was needed, but I also did not hesitate to ask for help.
The experience I got from this day taught me a lot about the community. It made me more knowledgeable about the work that so many organisations are doing for young children that are going through hard times. Not only did I learn about the community and the role it plays for children, I learned more about myself. I learned that even today I get nervous when being in an unfamiliar situation, something that I thought I would “grow out of”. I overcame this feeling when I understood that the time that I had with these children was very limited and that I wanted to make the most of it and as much experience as skills as I could. I learned that I am much better at listening that I am at talking. The children told me a lot about the other activities they participated in and I understood that it was okay not to always speak. These children may not always get to tell someone about their day, they may not have a person at home that has the time or mental stability to communicate their day and emotions with, and so I tried not to speak much and let them do the talking. Although some of the children were quiet and gave me one worded answers, I understood that it was impossible to connect with them in such short times and I learned to not be so hard on and press them further. This was a skill that I learned through out the activity.
The skills I gained by volunteering in the programme were invaluable in relation to teaching and education. Although I feel I had skills before going in (communication and listening skills) I feel after the day I really developed these skills further in different situations. Not only did I develop these skills, I gained more that I feel as a teacher are very valuable. For example, I would like to assume that I am an enthusiastic person, however during the pumpkin craving, I felt that the room was quiet (most likely due to new people coming in) and the children sitting next to me weren’t speaking much. So, in order to ease my presence, I had to be very enthusiastic so that I came across friendly and approachable. Qualities I feel are incumbent when working with children. It allows children to feel safe to speak and participate. They are more likely to engage with the work/actives at hand, and there is more likely to be a more positive outcome. The article “Feeling and showing: A new conceptualization of dispositional teacher enthusiasm and its relation to students’ interest” back up this concept by highlighting through studies that a teacher’s enthusiasm greatly impacts a pupil’s interest positively. So, the more interested a child is in the classroom, the more they will learn and retain.
A connection that I was able to make straight away from this experience was to Inter-professional working. Teachers are one of the contacts that can make this referral for children, if they feel their home lives are too stressful and the children need a break. This is an example of two different agencies working together to ensure the wellbeing of a child. Teachers must pass on information that is appropriate and necessary to GAMH, to ensure that each child is getting the best out of the activities and to monitor their progress and report back to teachers.
My overall experience volunteering for GAMH was invaluable, and although I was only carving pumpkins, I was immersed in an environment that taught me a lot about myself and my community. It taught me that just because you cannot see a person’s struggles it does not mean they do not have any. It also made me realise that a child’s parent or carer’s mental and physical health can have a much bigger impact on the child than may be evident. Lastly I leant that sometimes its not always the answer to talk to a child about their struggles, sometimes the best thing you can do is given them a break, is allow them to talk about anything eles and for a short amount of time, and relieve them of their stresses and allow them to have fun because in most of the cases, these children spend a lot of time speaking to may other adults about their problems and stresses (teachers, therapists, pastol care teacher, social workers).