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John’s Reader Story – “It’s good for the soul, and good for the spirit.”

Written by Lily Kehoe, 12th April 2023

John is a staff member at a probation services setting. Here, he talks to The Reader about witnessing the benefits of Shared Reading as both a group member and member of staff.

The first time I encountered Shared Reading was in 2017, when I started working at the probation hostel. I attended sessions occasionally, and enjoyed the ones I did attend. I knew Shared Reading had benefits to residents, but having not fully invested myself in it I found it hard to describe what those benefits were to encourage the men to attend the group. I decided to do the training so I could learn more about Shared Reading, and help residents get involved.

There were a few staff members from other criminal justice settings on the training, and then the rest were from different backgrounds. When I started, the idea of feeling prepared and able to run a Shared Reading group felt a long way off! But the training team were great, and we travelled a long way in a short space of time. By the end, we were all running reading sessions for each other.

After doing the training, I felt much more able to explain the benefit of Shared Reading and encourage the residents into the group. There's lots of barriers that might make someone find it hard to take the first step in. They might think it's going to be just like a book club, or be anxious about being in groups, or fear that they will be made to read aloud in an exposing way. I explain that they won't be made to do anything, and they'll be supported and led through a story. It makes it easier when I tell them that the main part of the session is really the discussion.

I've taken to describing it to residents using an object like a cup. If two people look at a cup, one of us might see the handle, and the other night see the side. We're both looking at different parts of it, but when we talk about it together, we get more of an understanding of it as a whole. That's what we do in the session by talking about the story.  Shared Reading develops important transferable skills, helping us see that even when we think of our opinions as right, other points of view can be equally valid. In the sessions we are practicing listening to others' perspectives, and using empathy, which is really important in this setting.

When Covid hit, I helped run the sessions that happened by video call. The numbers attending the sessions increased, with sometimes more people wanting to attend these sessions than we could have in the room. Everything had stopped, and there was a need to talk about things that weren't Covid and connect. It felt like bringing a different world into the hostel when the Reader Leader led the session by video call. Even when there were issues with internet connections, everyone was so immersed in the session we carried on reading. It was beneficial for our mental health for residents and staff to exercise our minds. The momentum of Shared Reading in the hostel has carried on, with core group members who come regularly, and others on the periphery who come occasionally and still get something out of the session.

Being in the group doesn't feel like work time. It feels like an escape for the people in the room - including staff! It's also given me a personal interest in short stories, which I've taken a lot of enjoyment from. Probation hostels can be chaotic, busy and stressful, but our Shared Reading group has been a calm place, full of laughter as well. In fact, I can't remember one session where we haven't laughed! It's good for the soul, and good for the spirit.

As a charity we rely on the generous support of individuals and organisations to help us change lives through Shared Reading. A donation allows us to train volunteers, provide resources for groups and help reach more people. We want to make sure everyone can attend a Shared Reading group, no matter their background, income or situation, and we'll be so grateful for your help.

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