180˚ Turning Lives Around
12th– 16th May 2014
My Experience as a Volunteer
By Maisie Fuller
For the last four years I have been a Police Volunteer Person within Devon and Cornwall Police supporting Police cadets. In October I had the opportunity to attend a one day public services course with the police cadets, organised by Karen Harvey and delivered by the Phoenix Project. The day highlighted the importance of how courses such as this promoted teamwork, communication, trust and confidence.
I contacted Karen afterwards to ask if I could volunteer for similar courses and she invited me along to the 180˚ Turning Lives Aroundproject.
I was asked to arrive at 12.30pm to meet the team before the young people were due to arrive at 1pm. On arrival I was introduced to Jody, Darren and John who work for the Phoenix Project and Keith who I had met previously at the public services course.
By 1pm only four of the eleven young people had turned up, with them all eventually arriving at 1.45pm. Myself and Lisa, another volunteer, waited in the classroom with them whilst the rest of the instructors discussed whether or not the afternoon should go ahead as the young people had turned up so late.
It was during this time I had my first conversation with one of the young people who bluntly asked me if ‘I was a fireman’, and when I replied that I was volunteering he laughed and said ‘Why would you want to do that?’ Before I could answer, Keith pulled Lisa and I to one side and explained that the afternoon would not be going ahead and to come back in the morning. I left that afternoon wondering what I had let myself in for!
I arrived at 8.30am to meet Charlie a senior instructor who immediately explained to the young people what was and wasn’t tolerated and what was expected from them. His ‘firm but fair’ approach worked straight away and the young people sat up straight, took their hands out of their pockets and stopped rocking on their chairs. He then spoke about himself, his experience in the fire service and his love of winegums! They then in turn, introduced themselves and spoke about their future ambitions. I also had the opportunity to introduce myself and explain why I was there.
The group were then issued the kit that they would have to wear for the week and split into 3 groups to do drill taught by Keith, Charlie and Darren. After a short time I was asked to judge the team who I thought were the best. Much to Darren and Charlie’s disappointment, Keith’s group won. This first activity showed the importance of communication, teamwork and confidence, and although all three groups made minor mistakes, Keith’s group shone through as the team that worked the best together.
The rest of the day was spent doing team building exercises and hose running, which again, encouraged communication and trust and allowed the group to bond.
I also had the opportunity to speak to Jody about her role within the Phoenix project and similar projects that she is involved with. I left that day with a better understanding of the dedication and commitment it takes from the instructors to make a week such as this become a success.
On arrival the young people sat down quietly under the watchful eye of Charlie, Keith and Karen. I was amazed at how one day of the ‘firm but fair’ approach had refocused the young people about what to expect during the rest of the week. I was also introduced to another Phoenix instructor, Katie.
The groups were briefed about the day and then split into three groups. Group one were with Darren on the hydrant, group two were with Charlie and Keith doing a BA exercise and group three were with Jody and Katie in the classroom filling out their work books. The groups alternated after completing each exercise. I shadowed group one with Darren. They had three attempts to achieve a low time on the hydrant. After two attempts, one of the team members was not putting in as much effort as they could have done, and after a brief chat with their team mates and Darren about teamwork they completed the exercise again with their lowest time of just over two minutes. They later went on to win the competition with the best time out of all three groups.
We then moved on to the BA exercise. As there were only three in my group, and I had been issued with a fire kit for the week, I was given the opportunity to take part. I had previously done this exercise in October and struggled with the feeling of being claustrophobic, and left the exercise in tears. I knew that it would be even more of a challenge as this scenario involved going under a fire engine and through a 90cm wide, 3 metre long tunnel. However, the whole point of the week was teamwork, gaining new skills and confidence and trusting others, and with the encouragement from the other members of the team I agreed to take part.
The exercise involved being in a full fire kit with a 12kg oxygen tank strapped to my back, whilst wearing a mask and helmet. The mask had been frosted to simulate smoke so only shadows were visible.
We were given numbers and person number one had to lead the team through the scenario, communicating down the line what they had come across using their hands and feet, and hopefully finding casualties along the way!
It was my turn to go through the tunnel and every fibre in my body was screaming at me to take my mask off and walk out. With the encouragement from my team members, the constant reassurance from Charlie and Keith, and with Lisa cheering me on from the sidelines, I not only conquered the tunnel once, but twice! I did have to be rescued by Charlie at the end of the course as he pulled me out from under the fire engine, but I didn’t think it was a bad effort for somebody who said that they were never doing that again in October!
Exhausted and bruised (literally!) I came out of the tunnel feeling incredibly proud, not only of my team, but of myself as well. It also reminded me of the importance of encouragement, teamwork and trust because without the support I got I would not have been able to achieve what I did. I also hope it showed the young people that if they approach any situation in life with a ‘can do’ attitude, they’re likely to succeed.
In the afternoon the group chose and practised their roles for the presentation. Again, it amazed me to see that this was the unengaged group on Monday that were now marching, hose running and administering CPR as a well organised team. The transformation was outstanding.
As a reward for their hard work Bishops Forum was booked on Thursday, and before they left on Wednesday to go home, Charlie had another chat with them about the importance of representing themselves, the school and the project.
I left on Wednesday feeling very proud and excited by the potential of the young people.
It was the final day I was introduced to two more instructors, Stuart and Lee and the group were briefed about the afternoon’s presentations. The group practised the demonstration that they would be doing in the afternoon and the instructors made sure everyone understood and were happy with their roles. Seeing them march onto the drill yard reinforced just how far they had come in such a short amount of time.
They were then split into three groups, alternating between cleaning the appliance bay and trying on their shirts for the afternoon, completing their workbooks with Jody and having a life skills and one to one mentoring with Charlie. I spent the first part of the morning helping to clean the appliance bay and checking that their shirts fitted and then went with the final group to observe a life skills lesson.
The group were encouraged to review their own progress from the week, what new skills were transferrable to school and their future hopes and ambitions.
It was during this lesson that an incident happened outside between three members of the group and Charlie was called to deal with it. Under the ‘three strike’ rule, and because certain behaviour was not tolerated, two members of the group were asked to leave the project.
The rest of the group were briefed and the roles were reassigned. Although it was disappointing for the group to not finish with the eleven it started with, I felt it brought the remaining nine young people closer together and reinforced that certain behaviour is not acceptable. They all worked incredibly hard to show their families what they had achieved at the presentation and the amount of family members who showed up was testament of how proud they were of their children and the project.
At the end of the presentation when the young people were allowed to mingle with their families, the young person who had laughed in my face on the Monday for volunteering, came up to me and thanked me being there and complimented me on my toast making skills! His appreciation reflected my thoughts on what a successful week it had been.
I was so proud of what they had all achieved in a week and only hope that they transfer the skills they have gained such as confidence, tolerance, patience and communication to their school and living environments. After a shaky start to the week I had my doubts about how a project such as this can ‘turn lives around’, but by day five my opinion had drastically changed after seeing so many of them start their journey of positive changes. The project allows young people who may not respond to traditional methods of teaching approach education in a realistic and safe environment.
The dedication, experience and understanding of all the inspirational instructors was paramount in enabling the young people to access practical skills and qualifications to help aid their future studies and I cannot wait to follow their progress over the next 12 months.