An Unexpected Chapter, silver linings from the pandemic: Voluntary Services

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Two volunteers each in PPE displaying tablets, testing and cleaning kits

Dealing with the pandemic over the last two years has necessitated all kinds of changes across the Hospice, some temporary and others more long reaching. One area of our support that has had to adapt and respond every step of the way has been our incredible volunteer team and the Voluntary Services Team who look after them.

The Hospice has always relied on volunteers, who help with everything from maintaining our beautiful gardens to greeting visitors, serving customers to helping with bereavement support groups. During the pandemic some roles had to be introduced or adapted, others had to be halted altogether.

Our Voluntary Services Team have responded flexibly to rapidly changing needs, supporting clinical and business support teams, as well as 500 plus volunteers. Our volunteers too have played an essential part in our capacity to proactively adapt and respond to the very many different demands – and stages – of the pandemic.

Female smiling at camera wearing a black and white striped top and green lanyard

We spoke to Voluntary Services Manager Hannah Touhey, to find out a bit more about how the last two years have been for her and gain a deeper understanding of some of the things which have changed in that time.

Voluntary Services before the pandemic

Pre-pandemic volunteers were primarily face to face, conducting their roles in-person with patients, visitors, supporters and customers. They provided a range of practical and emotional tasks that benefitted those who use our services as well as the staff who support them. Some examples include, delivering meals on the Inpatient Unit, providing bereavement support, preparing flower arrangements, proof reading and packing materials ahead of fundraising events! Of course, we also had our retail volunteers in our charity shops providing a warm and friendly welcome and raising vital income.

When the pandemic hit in April 2020, this had to change overnight

Voluntary Services at the start of the pandemic

Initially guidance was changing by the hour, roles which could continue in the morning were stood down by the afternoon. We had never worked in such a fast-moving situation and our priority was to ensure the safety of those we support and our volunteers. We began a skills audit with our volunteers, identifying who had experience and could support us with vital roles such as counselling or clinical care if needed. Our volunteers were incredibly patient and understanding during this time, recognising the many challenges we were facing.

Females online cameras volunteers and staff at Arthur Rank Hospice Charity

During the first lockdown most of our volunteers were stood down to ensure we reduced footfall in the Hospice and Alan Hudson Centre buildings or in response to hospitality and retail closures. As the Charity responded to restrictions, events and fundraising activities – much of which had previously taken place face to face – also had to be revised and evolved. Usually, dozens of volunteers support the Fundraising Team with roles such as marshalling, picking up collection tins, or putting together fundraising packs. With the necessary change required for such activities to become virtual and remote – the need for volunteer support in these areas took a back seat.

In fact, many of the Charity’s services had to halt entirely, in order that colleagues could be redeployed, meaning volunteers in these areas were also placed on hold indefinitely. At this time the Voluntary Services Team began working from home and so our service and its volunteers began connecting online, in our homes.

Unsurprisingly our incredible staff began to adapt their services and processes to allow them to continue their work. As a result, volunteer roles flexed to meet these changing needs and some volunteers began to return to their roles, operating in different ways. Other roles remained on pause and many of these volunteers offered to be redeployed to where they were needed: their support ranged from clinical support, to providing help with online sales – an area the Charity’s Retail Team had grown exponentially and very quickly in response to physical shop closures.

Redeploying volunteers to support clinical teams

It quickly became clear that the teams focus should be supporting clinical teams, who were under enormous pressure.

Two volunteers near the entrance of the Hospice in PPE, preparing for visitors' lateral flow tests

Lateral flow testing at the Hospice became mandatory in January 2021, and we were asked to find volunteers who could support with managing this to allow clinicians to remain working with patients. We put a call out to our volunteers at around 3pm on a Friday and by 8pm we had 32 volunteers who had completed the NHS training and were ready to begin the following Monday! The volunteers provided a testing service for visitors, supported by colleagues, between 9.00am-5.00pm, seven days a week. This took place in our car park, the hairdressers which is usually Salon HD and the Quiet Room (opposite main reception). There was a lot of rapid learning for all the volunteers and team involved, learning how to do the tests and report results, but they did a brilliant job and some new friendships were even made amongst it all!

Female smiling and holding a phone

Our Caring Communities service was just about to launch and had made one home visit before the pandemic began. The original plan was for our team of ten volunteers to visit patients in their own homes on a weekly basis. These patients had accessed our Living Well Service but were in-between programmes and would benefit from some face-to-face social support. As we could no longer visit homes, this evolved into a telephone service, with volunteers providing regularly weekly calls to patients – which as you can imagine was invaluable to many people, one patient said “I live alone so get very lonely at times. It was like talking to a friend’ and another “I have been at home since March so really enjoy the calls – they are brilliant!”. The service was also expanded to support an influx of patients from the Living Well Service whilst they were developing their virtual offering.

2 nurses, 1 in a blue uniform look at the laptop in the Living Well Service room

The Living Well Services became virtual in a matter of weeks, and many of the volunteers who would have provided support in person with cups of tea, crafts and chats, joined in on these sessions, to continue help support patients virtually.

In October 2020, the HR Team started a recruitment drive for more than 50 new colleagues needed for the Hospice at Home team, as the service was fast-tracked in response to the extra pressures of COVID on the healthcare system. The service was to be expanded to 24 hours across the entire county. Tina – our Voluntary Services Coordinator – was redeployed to the HR Team to support their recruitment efforts, so instead of taking up volunteer references and DBS checks she was suddenly doing these tasks for our new staff!

As our Voluntary Services Manager, I therefore took on all of the day-to-day activity for volunteers, including their rotas, general enquiries and COVID-19 risk assessments! It was a strange time, and it was important to continue engaging with our volunteers through regular newsletters and virtual meetings and social events. Our volunteers had very different responses to the pandemic; some wanted to volunteer a lot to stay occupied and give back, others were understandably cautious as we learnt more about the virus. Many volunteers had increased caring commitments and although they wanted to come in it just wasn’t possible. Catering for such a huge range of experiences could be very challenging but we felt it was important to make the space for people to engage with us still if they wanted to.

2021 evolving and responding

During 2021, the pressures on the Hospice evolved once again. This time we were better prepared and had a lot of the necessary procedures and communication already in place. This meant that whilst we were very busy, we also had room to grow and develop our offering.

In March 2021 I took on management of our Help@Hand app. The app supports our service users in easily accessing resources that may benefit them. This was a great project to lead on as we could encourage our volunteers to use this when supporting patients, particularly in the patients’ homes – COVID-19 securely of course!

Between March and April 2021 we also launched our annual Volunteer Survey and received almost 200 replies. As you can imagine, a particular focus this year was our response to the pandemic, which volunteers rated us highly on. Volunteers had felt engaged, and many had enjoyed being redeployed to other roles. We received some lovely feedback which was a good morale boost for colleagues too, including: ‘Fantastic effort at keeping volunteers safe and well informed during pandemic’; ‘I appreciate the enormous effort the team have put in, to creating a newsletter week after week during the past year, which has been my main source of information (and much amusement at times!)’; ‘I think you have bent over backwards to keep us informed, cherished & on board’

Colleagues outside the Retail Hub in Sawston

During Summer of 2021, the Retail Hub reopened. We supported our Retail Team by recruiting and redeploying over 45 new volunteers into roles such as Book Scanners, Sorters and Online Sales. This was a huge achievement given the circumstances and it was exciting to be part of a new venture for retail.

Female smiling at the camera holding a paper flower made at Arthur's Shed session at Arthur Rank Hospice Charity

In August we re-launched Arthurs Shed with restrictions and a reduced number of sessions and attendees. Although people were cautious the feed-back we had was very positive and people were keen to return. We closed the Shed down for winter and aimed to re-open in the early months of 2022, welcoming in the new year.

Males and females in the Hospice garden proudly holding their Long Service award certificate

In September 2021 we were thrilled to finally come together and celebrate a belated National Volunteers Week and Volunteers’ Long Service Awards. It was lovely to see our volunteers in person again and recognise their achievements. We have pin badges to mark five-year increments: one volunteer and Rosemary (second from the right in the photo above) received her 35 years Long Service Award, so we had to order new ones especially!

Over the past year we have also developed over 16 new volunteer roles across the Charity. These include a Zoom Host for the Living Well Service, Track and Trace volunteers in our Bistro and a Creative Activities Assistant for the Alan Hudson Day Treatment Centre. We have also launched bigger projects such as our Life Celebration volunteers who support patients with sharing their life story; we have five volunteers in this role who have already supported 17 patients! To support this team, we recently recruited a volunteer Administrator, to help manage all the stories and their resulting transcriptions.

In August we welcomed three new volunteers to a Venue Hire role. Ian, Rosemary and Jackie support our Venue Hire Manager Louise with welcoming clients and ensuring they have a wonderful experience with us.

Female wearing a mask outside IPU doors at Arthur Rank Hospice Charity

Our Inpatient Unit Meet and Greet role began in September 2021, which has proved very successful. Volunteers stationed outside the ward support visitors with showing their negative lateral flow tests and reminding them of the most up to date COVID-19 guidance. They also provide a warm welcome to new visitors!

Two of the Hospice's healthcare assistants with one of the ward clerk's on the Inpatient Unit, with rainbow pictures behind

Every cloud has a silver lining and since the start of the pandemic we have recruited over 219 volunteers. Although not all have been able to stay with us, it has been fantastic to see an increase in younger volunteers, those with children and those who work full-time, who traditionally have found it harder to access volunteer opportunities. An increase in diverse roles, particularly those that can be done from home, has led to a more varied group of applicants. We have worked hard during this time to improve our accessibility, such as the introduction of a virtual recruitment process which has allowed many more people to join us from the comfort of their own home. I was lucky enough to have a baby join me for a virtual interview with their mother, something which wouldn’t have been possible before! We have even recruited a volunteer in Manchester who helps support the Communications Teams with subtitling and transcription.

Most important of all though, I am sure that the agile approach and solution-based attitude we have grown throughout this very challenging time, will stay with us as we continue to develop, long after the pandemic’s lockdowns are over. What a privilege it has been to work alongside such as an amazing group of volunteers at such an incredibly difficult time.

If you would like to volunteer for our Charity please see our volunteer opportunities here:

You may also like to read about our other Unexpected Chapters:

Read ‘An Unexpected Chapter – Day Therapy’(now called Living Well)

Read ‘An Unexpected Chapter – The Patient and Family Support Team’

Read ‘An Unexpected Chapter for our Director of Fundraising and Communications 

Read ‘An Unexpected Chapter – Hospice at Home’ 

Read ‘An Unexpected Chapter, silver linings from the pandemic: video consultations for Lymphoedema outpatients’