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Introduction

A group of individuals representing a variety of health, education, and social agencies from the Waterloo Region in Ontario, formed the Resources Group for Supported Volunteering. This group successfully sought funding the Ontario Trillium Foundation for a supported volunteering project called “Ready…Get Set…Volunteer!” (RGSV).

The goal of the program was to encourage and empower persons with disabilities to participate in volunteering by providing the appropriate supports, education and training to both volunteers and community organisations.

Project Design

All potential volunteers participating in the RGSV program were required to complete a form concerning their interests, abilities, and accommodation needs. They were asked to meet, one-on-one, with a staff member to discuss their interests and specific needs in more depths, and to discuss placement opportunities.

Once a potential volunteer placement was chosen, an interview was arranged in preparation for a placement. Potential volunteers received guidance from an RGSV staff member on how to manage the interview. This interview was often conducted with the support of an RGSV staff member or a volunteer coach. Volunteer coaches are individuals from the community who have successfully completed an extensive interview process and training program. Coaches provided assistance and guidance for the volunteer either in the form of short-term (basic) support or as ongoing (extended) support that included accompanying the volunteer on each volunteer activity. As part of the program, RGSV staff also provided education and training for the agencies using the services of the program volunteers.

The percentage of participants with complex needs for this project was 30%.

This project recognised five types of support:

  1. Information Given
  2. Intake Interview, Read and Review
  3. Referrals
  4. Basic Coaching
  5. Extended Coaching

More details, here.

Outcomes

All study participants agreed that finding a volunteer placement for a person with a disability was a substantial accomplishment that had, in and of itself, many benefits for the person.

Having a supportive volunteer placement, for instance, impacted program participants by increasing their level of independence and self-confidence, and by developing a greater sense of responsibility. One volunteer shared that "[I] feel like [I] am doing something actually worthwhile."

Volunteer jobs also helped volunteers to acquire new skills and to meet new people. Many shared that volunteering made them feel "part of a team." They reported that being a volunteer allowed them an opportunity to be involved in their community, something they often found difficult to experience. Volunteers shared sentiments such as, "[it] gets me out of the house" and "[it] gives me something to do." According to one volunteer, [Volunteering] has radically changed me and my life…I used to sit at home and play games and…now I am a lot more involved in the community. The friends I have…how well connected I have become. I have become somewhat of a leader in the community…I have my confidence back. I certainly didn't have that two years ago. Overall, all stakeholders reported that a volunteer job provided an opportunity volunteers had been looking for, one where they could learn new skills, meet new people, become involved in their community, and improve their well-being and quality of life.

Generally, the challenges associated with supported volunteering experienced by volunteers concerned volunteer job duties and existing stigma towards disability. The majority of volunteers with disabilities required some support. Support typically included helping to complete forms, providing increased supervision and assistance, providing necessary physical and structural accommodations, and clarifying appropriate behaviours.  Nevertheless, according to agencies, the support for volunteers with disabilities was not substantially different from the support given to volunteers without disabilities: "[there is] not much difference between those with disabilities and those who do not have disabilities because [all] volunteers need this guidance." The evaluation showed that support for volunteers with disabilities, while necessary for a successful placement, does not differ from usual supports offered and is not typically taxing on agencies.

One of the most challenging aspects of supported volunteerism is the coordination of volunteers who have special needs. Many agencies felt that they were not adequately trained to address some of the concerns they encountered with volunteers who struggle with mental health or behavioural issues, hygiene issues, or illiteracy. For example, for some agencies it was unclear how to appropriately discuss proper hygiene practices without embarrassing or upsetting their volunteer.

Difficulties were also posed by volunteers who did not acknowledge their own limitations and openly sought responsibilities beyond their capacities.

Finding meaningful jobs for volunteers was another challenge. Many agencies explained that it was difficult in some cases to find volunteer jobs that suited a volunteer's unique abilities, and that they could not "create opportunities or create things to do." Some staff also expressed challenges in accommodating people with physical disabilities.

Generally, all stakeholders agreed that the coaching program had a positive impact upon volunteers, coaches, and agencies. Volunteers benefited from one-on-one, on-site support that fostered their personal growth, increased confidence and independence, and kept them focused on their volunteer job.

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