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Volunteers’ Week – The power of digital volunteers in Wales

By Mark Smith, Marketing Officer, Digital Communities Wales

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a volunteer is ‘a person who does something, especially helping other people, willingly and without being forced or paid to do it’. Apply that definition to supporting people to use digital technology, and get the most out of being online, and you have a ‘digital volunteer’.

For all the years that Cwmpas has been delivering digital inclusion projects and programmes – funded by Welsh Government and the European Regional Development Fund – people using their own time and skills to help others has been integral to the success of that work.

Whether it’s been volunteers helping out at ‘Digital Fridays’ sessions at libraries and other community venues around Wales, or schoolchildren introducing digital technology to hospital patients and care home residents, among many approaches, digital volunteering has been woven into the fabric of efforts to reduce the digital divide.

While digital volunteers help other people, because they want to, they are also helping themselves. In some cases, it can be to develop their CV and gain valuable work experience; in others it can provide people with a sense of purpose, structure and pride.

As Digital Communities Wales has developed, particularly in recent years, a greater emphasis has been placed on the value of digital technology and going online to people’s health and wellbeing. As Digital Heroes, young people are helping older people – many with significant health problems – to develop new friendships with technology as the vehicle, while improving experiences of living in a care home or being on a hospital ward.

An outstanding example of this is something that we’ve shared on many occasions, drawing a lot of attention, is Woffington House. The care home in Tredegar has formed a wonderful working relationship with local schools, including Georgetown Primary. The kids visit the home on a regular basis, and armed with iPads they sit with a resident that they’ve got to know, and show them how the devices can help them relive things from their youth. In this particular case, residents have had medication reduced or completely withdrawn, as a direct result of these sessions and being introduced to the online world.

Tackling loneliness and isolation also improves someone’s health and wellbeing. In another form of volunteering, Digital Companions is a relatively new way of achieving this. The initiative’s first steps have been taken in partnership with Hywel Dda University Health Board and Aneurin Bevan University Health Board. This is a Bevan Exemplar project, supported by the Bevan Commission, Wales’ premier think tank for health and care.

The initiative’s main objective is to find and train people who visit an older person on a regular basis. This could be a friend, relative, neighbour and an existing befriender of an older person. The thinking is they spend time with that person and, based on their interests, ever so gradually introduce them to the internet and a laptop or handheld device. Gradually is the key! I’ve long been aware of the approach ‘start where people are at’ when getting someone online for the first time, and Digital Companions is becoming a great way of making this happen. The Companion only requires a basic skill level of going online. You can learn with the person you’re helping.

Last but not least, the third form of digital volunteering that we develop and enable is Digital Champions. These are people who volunteer within their own organisation, or people that go into other workplaces, to support frontline staff and volunteers to do more with digital technology. This is essentially about increasing skills within an organisation, for whatever reason. Digital Champions generally have the IT knowhow that makes it easier for them to provide their voluntary assistance. One lovely example of this is Peter Loughran, who has been helping people in West Wales to use technology for over ten years, but stills enjoys the satisfaction of getting someone online for the first time.

Technology aside, what runs through all of this? It’s increasing a sense of connectedness that might not be as strong in our communities as it used to be. I’ve experienced the emotions of seeing an eight-year-old showing an eighty-year-old with dementia what their town looked like in the past. The genuine bond goes way beyond the digital aspect of this activity. Successful intergenerational work creates so many benefits for all involved. Not all heroes wear capes, as the saying goes.

Companions can also be used with a small ‘c’ as they are just that. They are keeping someone company, someone who might not see anyone for days. The fact that they’re accessing a whole new world by going online is merely a bonus. Then, Champions are increasing skill levels within an organisation that staff and volunteers directly benefit from, as well as cascading their newly acquired knowledge to their own clients or service-users.

As Volunteers’ Week is all about saying thank you to those who have given their time, as much as anything else, we want to say a huge THANK YOU to each and every one of you that is getting Wales online, one person at a time. You’re achieving more than you probably give yourself credit for.

If you’re interested in Digital Volunteers, please call Digital Communities Wales on 0300 111 5050 or explore our website, where you’ll find information on the different types of voluntary work that we lead on.