RNIB volunteer talks about how volunteering changed her life
Natalie Holford, age 59, has Marfan’s syndrome and is registered as Severely sight impaired in 2019 following a stroke. Having volunteered previously, she now volunteers for RNIB as a facilitator on the Living Well With Sight Loss Course (LWWSL).
Struggling with no support in employment
“Growing up I went to a mainstream school, but I wish in so many ways that I'd known about RNIB at the time, because being aware of services like Access to Work, would have really helped me with employment. I had no idea what assistance was available. I've had so many jobs where it said a driving licence was required and I couldn't drive, but being able to take a taxi would have probably kept me in work.
My last job was increasingly difficult, as it was all computer based, but if I'd had known more about my rights I think I would have probably stayed in the organisation longer. When I had a stroke in 2019, that was caused by having an aneurysm which is part of Marfan's syndrome, the plug was pulled.
I had a bit of a breakdown at this point. I had just moved house and couldn't find my way around and the counselling wasn’t helpful. Then I nearly got run over and it was RNIB that really helped put me back together.
Volunteering on the Living Well With Sight Loss course
After the pandemic, I was in touch with Charlene at RNIB, who offered me the opportunity to volunteer on the Living Well with Sight Loss course. I said that I would love to volunteer as a facilitator. What's great about the LWWSL course now is that people who aren’t able to get out, can do the course from the comfort of their living room.
It’s so nice to hear when people tell me how much they’ve enjoyed the course afterwards and how much they’ve learned. I see RNIB as being such a helpful resource to people. I was really impressed with how the volunteering is set up, because I used to be a volunteering manager for a Birmingham volunteer centre, helping organisations to develop their volunteer roles.
Learning new things from the LWWSL conversations
The LWWSL group conversations are an opportunity for people to answer each other’s questions - you can reassure each other that you don't need to be scared of using a smart phone or using assist. At the end of the session, people are really glad to have the Helpline number, and are often keen to go further and try the focus groups or social groups. It can be quite difficult to manage people in some of the groups depending on who’s involved, but that's part of the interest in managing people, and Charlene's always there if I need her. It's satisfying when you realise that you've helped people to get that key information.
Being supported in the role
Before volunteering in this role at RNIB, I'd always done face to face work, so it's a completely different skill to facilitate the group over the phone or on zoom, as I've still got a little bit of vision. So in this instance, it cuts out people's body language, as I can't tell which person is asleep, or if somebody's not paying attention.
There is a lot of support with Charlene – where she looks at my issues, and we also have a group supervision, where they look at various topics. Topics could include safeguarding or dealing with difficult customers, and then they also ask for our experiences during that call. So you get a cross pollination, and I think although there is a good framework with the living well with sight loss, Charlene always comes in with something topical.
I’m aware that they've got various new focus groups that people can join, such as the cost of living and well-being. So, I know that RNIB is very agile with taking what's happening and moving with it. What I really like that they're listening to people, and being reactive, as during the pandemic it was RNIB that got me a shopping slot when I couldn't find one. I value the fact that RNIB is always there with an answer.
The rewards of volunteering
For a visually impaired person, the conversation on the LWWSL course might be the first time that they're being asked about the format in which they’d like information. But although you’re doing good for other people, when you're volunteering you usually get far more out of it than you think you're putting in. There are great mental health benefits of volunteering.
One of the things that volunteering has done is given me a routine and contact with other people – as I can get very anxious now about doing things. Charlene's very considerate in making sure that we have a phone call beforehand and afterwards. But having something that fits into your week, I think it's really important when you're not really doing an awful lot of other things.
Volunteering gives you the chance to learn new skills, to find out what information you need and have the confidence to get it. Some people might be at that stage that they don't even know that they can ask their doctor to provide information in the right format. LWWSL co-ordinators are also problem solvers and give us confidence to do other things. Depending on the role that somebody takes on, you know that could give you a chance to get back into the workplace.
You might feel that you're on a scrap heap, but with the right assistance you could be able to work again, or even for the first time. Charlene mentioned that if I was interested in doing paid work, we could look into that, which was encouraging.”