Our Make a Difference Differently series features volunteers who do things a little differently, finding innovative ways to help the charities we support through Octopus Giving.
This month, we’re speaking to Emma Ryan. Emma works as a Senior Legal Counsel in our compliance team. For the past few years, she’s been working as a charity coordinator for our partner charity, Downright Excellent (DEx). DEx supports families with children with Down syndrome, offering speech and language therapy, skills sessions and other learning opportunities. Emma has helped lots of children with Down syndrome maximise their potential, plus given her own confidence a boost through her volunteering work. Read on to find out how…
Hi Emma! Can you tell me about what you’ve been doing to help our charities?
I’ve been working as a charity coordinator for Downright Excellent (DEx) for the past couple of years. This basically means I’m the link between the charity and the Octopus people who volunteer for them. I help DEx work out what sort of activities they need help with, then go round Octopus telling people more and encouraging them to volunteer.
DEx’s needs tend to fall into a few different categories. Sometimes they need help on the skill-sharing side; for example, people to help with their marketing or work on their website (like Ellen who we featured last month). But the main thing I look after for DEx is their Stay and Play sessions, including helping them set up volunteer note takers.
That sounds interesting, what do Stay and Play sessions involve?
Every Friday, Stay and Play is time for families with children with Down syndrome to visit the DEx centre for playtime and therapy (this was before coronavirus, they’re running similar sessions online at the moment).
My role in Stay and Play is sometimes as a volunteer, but is mostly about coordinating Octopus volunteers each week. I tell people in Octopus about the opportunity and explain what the benefits are of going along, plus tell them how much they would help the children. Sometimes people get a bit scared of going to do something new, so it’s all about telling people what to expect to put their minds at ease.
Stay and Play is extremely valuable for the families who attend. It’s a 3-hour session and for 45 minutes, the kids get speech and language therapy. For the rest of the time, they get to socialise with other children and play games. It can be a bit chaotic but it’s really fun. Usually, three or four Octopus people would go along each week to help with the sessions, perhaps tidying up toys or singing songs with the kids.
It sounds like these sessions are great for the children. Where does note taking come in?
During the speech and language therapy, DEx’s therapists were finding it hard to keep track of all the small but important signs of progress each child was making, as they’re group sessions. So I helped organise Octopus volunteers to go along to the therapy sessions and make detailed notes about what each child was up to. Now, the therapists can do their job without being distracted and can read the notes later to easily spot incremental changes they wouldn’t otherwise have noticed.
What made you want to get involved as charity coordinator?
I joined Octopus when the new charities partners had just come on board. As a new person, I saw it as a great opportunity to meet different people across the company. I love chatting with people and thought it would be the easiest way to connect with people I wouldn’t normally work with.
At the same time, I felt a personal connection with DEx. My sister has Down syndrome so I understand how crucial DEx’s work could be for families. My family would have massively benefited from their services but unfortunately, this kind of support wasn’t around when my sister was growing up. The idea of helping a charity that I know would have helped her so much persuaded me to get involved.
That’s lovely. What have you taken away from the experience?
I think in the early days of working at Octopus, being a charity coordinator helped me build my network and my confidence. Having to wander up to a different floor to encourage people to volunteer means I now know people all over the business, which has been helpful for my day job in the legal team.
The other thing is volunteering for DEx just makes you feel really, really good. You can’t go to one of their Stay and Play sessions, where you’ve got kids running around, grinning at you or asking you to sign your name or something, and not come out feeling happy. The parents will often come up to volunteers too, thanking them for their help.
DEx provides a huge amount of emotional support to families who have children with Down syndrome. The Stay and Play sessions are transformational for these families as they get help when they don’t know what else to do. It’s wonderful to volunteer for a charity that has such a positive impact and can be so clearly seen.
I’m sure there are lots to choose from, but do you have any favourite moments from the past couple of years?
One huge highlight for me was putting together the DEx thank you video. I got to speak to parents and find out just how thankful they are for DEx, and to Octopus for our support. To hear such lovely feedback was wonderful. And watching the kids in the video was great too.
Another brilliant moment was Down syndrome Awareness Day a couple of years ago. A family whose son had Down syndrome visited the Octopus office and talked about their experience. Then, we ran a sign language lesson with quite an eccentric, enthusiastic teacher. More than 30 people from around the business stood in a room doing sign language, and it was wonderful.
Finally, what would you say to other people considering volunteering?
It’s important to remember that volunteering can span a whole range of different things. You can choose to do something you enjoy and something you’re comfortable with. It can be singing Old McDonald with 20-odd three-year-olds or it could be answering the phone. Or it could be something to do with your skills, like helping a charity with their website or marketing. Whatever you can do, it will help the charity so much, even if you only give half an hour of your time. And if you volunteer to do something you enjoy, you’ll have fun too.
If Emma’s story has inspired you, why not reach out to charities near you to ask if they need help? For more ideas for creative ways to volunteer, read some of our other stories on the topic.