Volunteer Week: I cannot imagine anything I would rather do on a Monday
Wrapping up our National Volunteers' Week Reader Stories, Melanie shares her experiences on volunteering as Reader Leader:
I moved to Somerset in 2015 and had very few acquaintances in the area apart from my son and daughter-in-law. When I went to register at the Library I saw a notice about The Reader, asking for volunteers. I hadn't heard of The Reader before, but I'd been involved in reading aloud to the elderly before and thought this would be a good start for me, to get to know people locally and make a contribution to the community.
I met Sammy from The Reader for an initial chat and went on to attend a 3-day training course. At first I couldn't imagine why the course would be so long, just to learn to read aloud! But Shared Reading is so much more than that. We discussed how to read slowly and clearly, how to recognize body language and responses from our group members, how to break a story for discussion and analyse a poem, create an inclusive atmosphere, prepare a story and poem for the group and 101 other little skills, all of which I have used over the two years of my groups.
By the end of the three days I felt well prepared to run a group and that I'd come a long way in such a short time. The course leader was wonderful, we all appreciated his time and guidance, and it was great to know that the support was there from Reader HQ in Liverpool as well as regionally from Sammy. I didn't feel too apprehensive about starting a group.
On the first week I only had one person attend – a young man who had recently been in hospital. He told me he'd come because it had suggested it and after two years, he still attends occasionally, although he has a job now. Recently he told me that he had learned more poetry at the group than he'd ever done at school, and now he really enjoys it.
For me, the group's growth was a slow burn – two people attended on the second week, then three, then five, and now I run two weekly groups and have an average of 13 in each. Some group members come every week without fail, some come when they can or when they feel they want to. People come to Shared Reading for very different reasons – one of the groups I run is for people with memory loss and their carers, but the other is open to anyone who wants to enjoy a story, a poem and a cup of tea or coffee and a biscuit. The library staff have been wonderful and extremely supportive signposting new people to the group.
We start each session with refreshments so the group have a chance to settle down and enjoy a catch-up with the others. We often tell each other about things that are happening locally, at the library or the theatre and I often pick up copies of new programmes for them. The group lasts for around an hour and a half although we often overrun because our discussions are so absorbing! We read a short story, or an excerpt from a longer novel – we've been reading Far From the Madding Crowd recently – and a poem.
We discuss a wide variety of subjects: bereavement, loneliness, isolation, being a stranger, being underestimated, childhood, the natural world, and so on. Nothing is “out of bounds”, although as the group have got to know each other better, I've found that they've become more sensitive to things which might be particularly personal to others. And yes, we've had lots of tears and the odd tantrum, but that is where the training comes into play, and we return to the text, finding solace in the words and compassion from our companions.
So why am I still doing this after two and a half years? Simply because I love it, and I cannot imagine anything I would rather do on a Monday. I've had such pleasure sharing my love of literature with the group members, and such satisfaction from the trust they place in each other, and in me, as we explore stories together.
I love to see them smile, or laugh out loud, and I can't tell you how much it means to me to hear them say, at the end, “that was such a powerful story”, “that meant so much to me today”, “I haven’t spoken to anyone all weekend and I was looking forward to the group so much” or even just “thank you so much.”
I think it's important for people to know that Shared Reading is more than just reading aloud together, and so distinctly different from a Book Group. We pause, frequently, and look at the way in which a story unfolds and how particular phrases jump out because they mean something to one of the group. I love to hear gasps, “wow!”, “ouch!”, or laughter. I have been thinking how to describe the moment when you are really in the story and I think the best word is possibly a conspiracy. We are like a band of plotters, sharing ideas, feelings, emotions, and responses; I love it particularly when the group tries to guess what is going to happen and then gets a big surprise! The mood can change within the story and the group, but it is always receptive and never judgmental. The members really care for each other’s well-being.
From small beginnings I've seen real friendships developing – people who arrange to meet for lunch and then come in together or go out shopping afterwards. It's brought me so much joy on the occasions when we've read something together that everyone knows and joins in with, filling the Library space with their happy voices reading Early One Morning or The Charge of the Light Brigade.
Shared Reading really means as much to me as it does to the group members. It's taught me time and time again not to make assumptions about people or about how they will respond to a story or poem. It's taught me to slow down, both in reading and listening to others.
While there is a line to be drawn between me, as a Volunteer Reader Leader, and the members of the group, I feel privileged to listen to their stories and share their experiences. I believe in Shared Reading passionately, it matter a great deal to me, to my group members and to their networks of family and friends. At The Reader we carry out regular evaluation to gauge how the groups improve mental health and well-being, but as a Volunteer it's something I see firsthand every week. The group enjoy the sessions and they bring that joy home with them, talking to their nearest and dearest about what we've read. It can be challenging and surprising and so enjoyable. We all look forward to it each week.
Thanks to support from the players of the People's Postcode Lottery, The Reader are recruiting and training new volunteers from across the UK to bring Shared Reading into their local community.
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