Written for the Pre-school Learning Alliance by Nessa Rackham, Alliance Volunteer.
Last year, Nessa Rackham won the Alliance's coveted Volunteer of the Year Award for her work in creating and running the Daisychains support group for parents. Here she tells us all about the experience - what it was like to be nominated, attending the awards ceremony at our Annual Conference in London - and taking home the trophy!
Getting into volunteering
Daisychains, a support group for families of pre-school children with additional needs, grew from the need of one family from the Children Centre asking for support for their 2 year old son, whose condition was quite rare and so no specific group met his needs and the mother felt quite isolated. At the time I was on the Advisory Board and, having had experience as a mum myself with a child with additional needs, I thought starting up and supporting such a group was something I could not only offer but felt quite passionate about. I soon found a team of volunteers who shared my passion and 3 years later they remain as dedicated and caring as ever. After about a year of meeting it became clear that the needs of the group would be best served if we established ourselves a small unincorporated and independent charity with our own board of trustees. This we did but remain working closely in partnership with the Children Centre. I believe most strongly that the best support for our families is through engaging with others in the community and building up supportive and integrated networks. Why duplicate what is already being offered, much better to signpost support and focus on and develop the unique response each organisation can make.
We now have more than 10 families attending regularly each week and are able to offer a listening ear during the week when needed too. We have recruited more amazing volunteers, mostly from the parents whose children have moved on to school but don’t want to leave daisychains! Of course, their own experience and care for new parents joining our group is invaluable. We are beginning to access different funding avenues which enable us to provide more specialised sensory toys for the children, family days out and trips, training and urgent pastoral support when needed. The sense of community that has grown within daisychains over the last few years has been extraordinary. It has largely been achieved through volunteers and families feeling a sense of belonging within a non-judgemental, safe, creative, honest and relaxed environment. Volunteers and families alike report daisychains as being the highlight of their week. We share a lot of laughter and tears together. Our biggest resource for support is each other and the time to come alongside in the moment.
You could have knocked me down with a feather when Julie from our local Children Centre phoned to say I had been nominated for regional volunteer of the year for my work with daisychains. I didn’t even know such an award existed! To then be told my fellow volunteers at daisychains and the parents we support had been colluding and sharing stories behind my back was also somewhat bemusing. Having had a moment to think about it, I was deeply touched that those I come alongside each week considered what I share with them as anything other than ordinary because to me volunteering at daisychains really is just what I love to do. It is a huge joy and a privilege to be just one part of this amazing community of people and I certainly get far more than I give in so many ways.
But then Julie dropped the bombshell….you need to go to the Pre-school Learning Alliance East Division HQ in Swavesey, and have an interview as part of the selection process for the region…erm I don’t think so!! That all sounds far too terrifying and I certainly don’t want to talk about me, especially as I don’t consider what I do to be anything special! However, I was persuaded and a few weeks later Julie drove me so that there really was no escaping. I comforted myself in that having just spoken at a fund raising event for daisychains I could just share my photos and talk about the sessions. When Julie and I drove up to the Alliance office as per our satnav directions , we looked at each other aghast…it seemed we had in fact arrived at the Scoobydoo house! We soon realised our actual destination was a bit further up the street and we gave a sigh of relief as we were welcomed into a perfectly ordinary office. I was soon whisked off to “chat” to the lovely ladies from the Alliance team. I have to admit I had a great time, in fact Julie later asked me what on earth were we doing because she heard so much laughter coming from the room! It wasn’t at all like an interview but a most enjoyable conversation about the role of volunteers, support and community. Once I started talking about daisychains and the hope we had for the next few years I think it was difficult to shut me up!
"It really was a privilege to be sitting amongst these dedicated, caring and passionate people who are making such a positive difference to the children and families they come alongside each week."
It was a few weeks after I had a letter saying I had successfully passed through to the regional awards stage and was invited to a celebration lunch one Saturday in March. One person or group from each of the 3 categories would go forward to the national awards alongside representatives from the other 3 regions in the country. Again I was surprised to be put forward and then had a dilemma as the date for the regional awards was on my husband’s birthday, for which we had planned a day out. The Alliance team were so accommodating that they invited my husband and daughter along too and so we all attended and enjoyed a far better lunch than we had planned! It was a real treat to be able to meet with others from around the region in similar volunteering roles and hear the experiences of some inspiring speakers and be updated on current services and plans for the future. I was taken aback to be awarded the regional volunteer of the year and received a beautiful glass award inscribed with my name. It was especially moving to be able to share the moment with my family who always support the work of daisychains in so many ways too; from helping out at fundraising events to putting up with the creative mess at home as I prepare yet another messy craft activity!
The National Awards Ceremony
In June I met with some of the staff from local Alliance Children Centres along with one of my fellow volunteers, Judith, and we took the train up to London for the Alliance Annual Conference. There was a real buzz about the hotel and we thoroughly enjoyed looking at all the resources stalls. Once the conference got under way Judith and I were really challenged by some of the speakers. It was really interesting to be able to set what we did at our local level of volunteering within the wider sector context. We felt encouraged by what was being developed to particularly help families of children with additional needs and how many professionals and politicians were working tirelessly to raise the profile of the critical issues our families faced on a daily basis. However, we also felt disheartened by stories and statistics that indicated a real lack of accessible provision. Our resolve to continue to support our own daisychains families locally strengthened alongside an increased understanding of the importance of networking and connecting with the wider community to influence lasting positive change.
The afternoon session started with the national awards presentations hosted by Kate Garraway, the TV and radio broadcaster and personality. As each category was announced we heard about the inspiring work of all the nominated volunteers from across the country. It really was a privilege to be sitting amongst these dedicated, caring and passionate people who are making such a positive difference to the children and families they come alongside each week. I remember whispering to Judith next to me to comment on how awesome the nominees were so at least I wouldn’t have to go up on stage and make a short speech! However, I became aware of my name being read out as National Volunteer of the Year and I had a moment of numbness followed by shock and finally Judith screaming in my ear and pushing me on stage! My nerves soon disappeared as I was greeted by two very smiley pre-schoolers handing me a beautiful bunch of flowers and the award itself. I honestly can’t remember much of what happened next, I managed to string a few words together for the conference and get off the stage without tripping up! I then promptly burst into tears, so overwhelmed. I know the Alliance wish they could acknowledge every volunteer in this way and I feel so humble to receive this award on behalf of the hundreds of amazing volunteers who also give their time each week to help and support others.
The award has made a significant impact on our daisychains group by raising the profile of our group a bit more and this consequently helps with applications for funding. It has also been really affirming for our the families to feel recognised and valued in their community.
Today the two awards sit on my window sill at home and when the sun catches them they cast little rainbows across my living room floor, to the particular delight of my younger house guests, a reminder to me that simple gestures of help and care can bring real joy and hope to those around us.
Written for the Pre-school Learning Alliance by Nessa Rackham, Alliance Volunteer.