By Rachel Smith
Becoming a parent has been a life changing experience for me. Unexpectedly becoming a volunteer has been another.
I started volunteering 14 months ago after taking time out of work to become a full time mother. Like many other parents this led to a loss of confidence in my own abilities, and when my youngest started full time education I soon found my social skills were not as they once were. I began to volunteer with Heston West Big Local to give something back after my daughters had attended a successful summer project last year. Unaware at the time this has led to be life changing for not only myself but my family. We now have a vital support network that we like to call our Big Local family.
Heston West Big Local is a partnership of local residents and local stakeholders. Members of the board have volunteered to steer £1 million allocated to Heston West over a 10 year period by Local Trust in the hope the project will continue further. The overall objective of the project is to create opportunities for local people to live healthier and happier lives.
At Heston West Big Local we have an amazing group of volunteers, workers and local supporting organisations each with their own set of skills and abilities. I believe that how much and in what form you participate is a personal thing – it all helps to make the bigger picture.We offer various classes, and people participate on a regular basis.
The focus is on being inclusive so whatever traditionally could be seen as a barrier there is an ethos of members being approachable to discuss difficulties so we can work together to find a way around this so nobody is left behind. Most of the classes are free to attend such as the current Fitness Boot Camp. When childcare was said to be a barrier for people to attend a popular Bhangra Fitness class we provided an arts and crafts class for the children in the next room.
Our walking football group has amazed Andy Perren from Middlesex FA as it’s the first in the country to be truly inclusive welcoming all who want to join from friends and families with a large age range from 6yrs – 80yrs.
To ensure the younger residents have found a fun way to volunteer we run a very successful film club, MADE in Heston West. This is in partnership with a diversity focused media charity MADE who have a real talent on exploring social issues. Our Youth Action Team led off from this project and both groups work together. This partnership has seen many dedicated younger members volunteer well over 500 hours within the community this year. Collectively working on projects to support Hounslow Promise, creating a NHS falls prevention information video, leading the community to Parliament with a campaign to have politics and life skills included into the school curriculum are to name just a few of the many successful projects all with the initial concept of improving the health and well being of local residents.
A favourite that comes to mind is the Healthy Cooking Class. Originally, this was aimed at individual families to support bonding and provide information on healthy meals, while showing people how to prepare food. However, what transpired was amazing.
Each individual family joined in and together we became our Big Local family. Every week we would look forward to our Saturday morning and catch up with everyone. After cooking our healthy meals we would sit together in the next room and enjoy being together, like a family does. We would find out how the week had been, get the next installment of the dilemma someone else was trying to support with, tell jokes and reminisce.
Many great things happened before this but this was the beginning of something truly remarkable. Some people who had never spoken before were showing encouragement and giving advice, while others shared and developed new ideas for projects that would benefit the community.
Since this beginning, things have gone from strength to strength. I know many would agree that now we are a community that is building something better, rather than a project wanting to make improvements.
We do not just talk nor do we just do... we communicate effectively as a community what our needs and aspirations are. We support and develop ideas and then we act on this. Some may have work commitments or health barriers, but we support each other through difficulties and embrace each other’s strengths. This has come from both talking and doing. Not always the same person, not always the same time but always important.
With just talking there is no change, with just doing there is no structure. It takes partnership to make it work.
Last month we held our AGM, so it was a time for reflection. In the short time I have been aware of and supporting our Big Local, I have grown in confidence and ability. It's enabled and inspired me to push my boundaries, and I can honestly say that in the space of one year I am a better person for this experience already.
It has supported my personal transformation from being a housewife with little confidence in my own abilities in the world outside my home to a person wanting to try new things and not afraid of a challenge or to fail..I was apprehensive to share my thoughts and ideas, but with the encouragement of so many friendly faces I soon found my voice.
I am still “Mum” but it’s enabled me to be “Rachel” again. My sense of self was something that previously I felt I had lost. Regaining my identity I have enjoyed many experiences and linked to many amazing projects. It’s the variety of roles and meeting new people that makes it exciting for me personally.
I can go from supporting stroke prevention through AF testing within the community to networking at an annual PM lunch event in central London. It’s give me a different perspective on my own life while a greater understanding of others and supported a welcome recovery after suffering from depression. I have gained direction for a career path and had the ability to find out if this is achievable while looking after my family.
Without volunteering this would not have been possible. What I have received in return for donating a little of my time continues to amaze not only myself but my family and friends.