Volunteer Week 2015: “Volunteering for Henshaws gave me back my feeling of self-worth and provided me with a very good reason to live for”

As it’s Volunteer Week 2015, I wanted to make a blog post dedicated to all of our wonderful volunteers here at Henshaws as a thank you for all of the inspiring and hard work that they do! Whether a group leader, driver, fundraiser or supporter, every single one is imperative to the work that we do and we wouldn’t be able to run our services without them!

I have been a Henshaws volunteer for a year and a half now; starting out by doing collections before developing my skills further and becoming a motivational speaker at fundraising events, blogging about my experiences as a severely visually impaired person, and undertaking a Marketing work placement in the office at the Manchester Resource Centre. Volunteering for Henshaws has been vital to the growth of my confidence and sense of well-being and I absolutely enjoy being part of such a passionate community!

I recently talked with one of our long-standing volunteers, Mary Gifford, who runs the Art Galleries and Museums group; organising monthly visits to galleries, museums, heritage sites and other places of interest, free of charge, to over 30 members. No easy task! I wanted to find out more about how she discovered the charity and why she wanted to volunteer for us.

Image of our volunteer Mary sitting down and smiling at the camera“After being lucky enough to be a Commonwealth Games Volunteer in 2002, which was a wonderful experience for me, I attended the thank you party where many charities were recruiting for new volunteers. I picked up a leaflet for Henshaws as I worked just down the road from the Manchester Centre and drove past it every day. I had taken redundancy, at the age of 53, and was looking for voluntary work to fill the gap that the ending of my 30 year career had caused. I was drawn to helping people with a disability as my partner, John, was diagnosed with kidney cancer. We married that January and he died 14 weeks later. During his illness and rapid decline he quickly became disabled and I was his carer, having to learn to cope with this in such a short period of time.

This experience made me feel that I wanted to help other people who were disabled. I could not bring myself to volunteer for a cancer charity, but when the opportunity arose to volunteer for Henshaws I instantly felt drawn to it, despite having no previous real acquaintance with blind and visually impaired people. I started volunteering for Henshaws in February 2003 and it has turned into my third career!

The Henshaws Volunteer Co-ordinator at that time also said that he was looking for someone to liaise with Art Galleries and Museums and encourage them to give access to blind and visually impaired people. I had previously been a part-time amateur potter for 20 years, alongside my career at Norweb. I had had exhibitions of my own, had experience of dealing with Art Galleries and loved the arts in general so this seemed a dream opportunity to me! I said “I can do that!”

Volunteer Week 2015 image 2

The job I took on also included setting up an Art Galleries and Museums group, recruiting members and volunteer drivers and guides, as well as creating a monthly programme of events at a venue in Greater Manchester. I started off with one member in May 2003 and now regularly lead a group of around 22 blind and visually impaired people, supported by about 12 volunteer drivers and guides. Volunteering for Henshaws gave me back my feeling of self-worth and provided me with a very good reason to live for, and I felt I was at last working for principles that I value.

The service users and their abilities have inspired me many times! People who struggle and adapt to adversity have my full admiration. Along with this many members in the group have had other negative life experiences such as bereavement or fighting to get employment. There are so many examples of their spirit and they thoroughly inspire me to carry on and try to make a difference.

Volunteer Week 2015 image 3I personally found solace in my bereavement from music, art and theatre and I think that culture and learning have a big part to play in nurturing one’s soul. I am delighted to see the difference it makes to people in my group when they come to my events. The breaking down of isolation and the social side is also important and I love that too!”

Mary puts a huge amount of effort and work into her group and their visits each month. I’m a member of the Art Galleries and Museums group and it is certainly my favourite group, alongside the Arts and Crafts group, at Henshaws for the sheer diversity of exhibitions that we visit, the expansive range of culture and heritage that we discover as well as the opportunity of having such detailed audio description and a touch and handling element. I, too, share a passion for creativity and bridging the gap between the arts and accessibility and regard it as being extremely important. From all of us here at Henshaws I would like to say a massive thank you to Mary for her dedication and enthusiasm over the past 12 years!

Get involved!

If you would like to get involved in volunteering, we would love to welcome you onboard! Visit our volunteer page for more details of what’s available and get in touch with our Volunteer Co-ordinator at volunteer@henshaws.org.uk.

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Henshaws rely on voluntary donations; our work just wouldn’t be possible without people like you. Your support empowers local people living with sight loss and a range of other disabilities to increase their independence, achieve their dreams, and go beyond expectations.

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Kimberley is a Henshaws volunteer and service user of over two years. She is Co-Chair to the RNIB young person's campaigning network, Envision, a blogger, columnist, artist and an illustrator; previously the RNIB's Young Illustrator for 2014.