Reader Story: Zena, Volunteer

Zena, Kent

I live by the sea in Folkestone in Kent, with my Autistic brother and my dog Basil. I have a chronic illness and 18 months ago, I made the decision to leave my job, take some time out to manage my symptoms and to create a better lifestyle for myself.

Whilst recuperating I rediscovered my passion for reading. As a child I loved getting lost in the stories of Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie. I’ve carried that love of reading with me into adulthood and although at times I’ve lost touch with it due to illness and lack of concentration, I’ve always returned to the wonderful embrace of books.

Some books really speak to me, connect with my situation and help me through difficult times and others are great for escapism – like Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris, a brilliantly compelling read which was impossible to put down. I also really connected with Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls as I experienced a lot of grief as a child and wish I’d had this book to read then.

“I found it so powerful that I was still able to connect with those feelings of grief – it felt very cathartic. This was part of my motivation to set up my own project to help others.”

Reading has been so important and helped me so much, I wanted to share that experience with others. I set up Reading for Wellbeing to work with vulnerable groups, using Shared Reading as a tool to help people discuss, process and get a different perspective on their own situations. The Reader’s Christmas Challenge funded Read to Lead came up at the perfect time as I was getting ready to retrain and refresh my skills.

I’d recommend Read to Lead to anyone. The three day training programme was great, we took on a lot of information but it still felt relaxed and I found the large amount of practical application really useful – techniques for reading aloud, the type of questions to ask the group that will generate discussion. By the end I felt really enthused and the idea of Shared Reading as a powerful way of working with people really made sense.
It also really helped to boost my confidence and guided me how to tackle poetry more effectively – by the end of the three days I felt so much more comfortable with poetry and I could really see how I could use all these skills in my own groups. I was able to put them straight into practice too as I had two groups the very next day and the results were amazing! The groups really engaged and I was able to keep them on track throughout the whole session.
I am already running groups with a homelessness charity, a domestic abuse service and a mental health group. I feel much more confident in what I’m doing and I’ve challenged myself to pick stories and poems I might not have used before. I feel like the people attending the groups are getting far more out of the experience too.
Next, I’m going to be giving taster sessions to local housing services and offering Shared Reading groups to residents there. I think a lot of people see reading as something educational or out of their reach, I really want to people of all backgrounds and abilities to see that reading can make a difference for their health and well-being. I don’t have a literary background, I hope that helps my group members see reading as something accessible to everyone.
“I had a wonderful moment with an individual in the domestic abuse group I deliver while reading Jenny Colgan’s A Very Distant Shore. A group member who usually doesn’t say much asked what a refugee was, when I explained, they replied “that’s like me, I’m escaping something and starting again.” You could really see them thinking about it, processing the idea – they made a wonderful and very powerful connection with the story.”
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