On Wednesday the 11th of February Eleonora Venema organised and expert meeting on the topic of volunteers and the care for disabled people. The afternoon was organised in conjunction with Sustainable Society and was an opportunity to present the first findings from her research. Furthermore a discussion among the participants was held to further identify the current issues that participants recognise and share ideas on how we could improve the situation. Among the participants of the meeting were volunteers, professional care staff, relatives and managers/executives of care organisations. The meeting was led by Jacques Wallage.
First up was a short presentation on results from Venema’s research volunteers caring for disabled people. Her focus is to see how volunteers can help disabled people integrate better into society, what tasks they can perform and how collaboration between the volunteers and professionals is realised. Venema stresses the importance of an ideal context in which all parties work together to achieve the optimum outcome to benefit the disabled person. She finds however that in practice this turns out to be somewhat different. Though volunteers and staff identify that their collaboration is often good, they see space for improvement. One outstanding conclusion that can be drawn from the first results is that specifically those tasks and activities that are known to be of great influence on social integration, are regarded as the least suitable to be performed by volunteers. In most cases it is down to the staff to decide how a volunteer can be of help. A clear policy on what a volunteer is supposed and allowed to do often seems to be missing. Communication seems to be a key factor here.
The presentation was followed by a discussion that was divided into three sections. Section one discussed the optimal context in which volunteers have to do their work. Section two discussed the social integration aspect represented in policy. And lastly section three focused on the amount of volunteers needed.
Some professional carers recognise the issues brought up by Venema in her presentation but others emphasise that it is often down to a specific case. Some forms of care have different requirements and need professional help, other forms might well be done by volunteers. It is generally agreed on by the participants that an environment in which “a custom fit” is made has to be created. Some carers feel a strong responsibility for the client and can therefore be hesitant to hand over tasks to a volunteer. Good communication between carers, volunteers and clients is crucial in creating the ideal context.
Next up was a discussion about the policies that are in place to ensure the ideal context for the volunteers. Again all parties stress that policies and practices can differ widely between different care forms. The policy makers though do try to create a landscape for volunteers, but that it is often a complex process. The question of education is raised and there are mixed opinions about this. On the one hand some volunteers want the extra education to be able to do their work properly, on the other hand the main expertise should stay with the professional staff. More generally speaking volunteers would like to feel accepted by and be part of the organisation in an implicit way. This means that policy should be aimed at implicit measures to involve the volunteers in for instance a “Sinterklaas” party. In any case the professional staff needs to know how to go about working with volunteers and what their responsibilities are. Once again the topic of policy is not a matter of “one size fits all”.
Lastly the amount of volunteers was discussed. Should we pay volunteers in certain situations to bind them to the organisation? Are there other ways to promote volunteering? Many of the representatives of care institutions share their ideas on how they recruit volunteers. The notion of being paid is a heavy discussion point and mainly the volunteers present don’t think this would be a good idea. Furthermore the group of volunteers is often not very divers and organisations would like to attract a more varied group of volunteers. It is agreed upon that volunteers have valuable role within the caring facilities, not in the form of “cheap labour” but because they bring a part of the outside world into the organisation. They can perform tasks that the professional staff don’t have time for.
The expert meeting was very helpful in sharing ideas and experiences regarding the role of volunteers. It was surprising how all participants had constructive answers without being tempted to accusing other parties of the problem. The main conclusion that can be drawn from the discussions is that it comes down to involving the volunteer, instructing the professional staff how to work with volunteers and stepping away from a “one size fits all” mentality.
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