Mission to transform towns through volunteering

Rachel Loftus, Chief Service Officer for the Cities of Service programme.
Rachel Loftus, Chief Service Officer for the Cities of Service programme.

If every person in Kirklees aged 16 and over gave just one hour of their time in a year it would create 932 hours of volunteer time every single day.

This mind-boggling statistic comes from Rachael Loftus, chief service officer at Kirklees Council.

It’s her job to unlock this vast untapped resource by making it as easy as possible for people to volunteer, and making it a fulfilling experience for the volunteer and the cause they are helping.

“We know that not everyone has the time and energy to be involved in everything, but we also know that there are huge numbers of us who would love to do more, and just need to find the right opportunities that suit our skills, passions and availability,” Rachael said.

“If we could direct all those volunteers hours we could really get the kind of society we wanted to live in.”

And Kirklees is getting her experience and passion for free. Rachael began working for the council last year when the authority was awarded City of Service status and given funding for her job.

Founded by philanthropist and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, Cities of Service supports places where political leaders are committed to using volunteers to solve pressing local challenges.

Rachael is fully aware of the great work carried out already by Kirklees’ many volunteers. A recent study suggested 25.6 per cent of people in Kirklees volunteer or give unpaid help – higher than the regional and national average.

“Give me the worst street you can think of, and I can guarantee you there will be someone who pops in on a neighbour and volunteers at a local youth group,” said Rachael. “I’m absolutely passionate about the fact people are already making that difference – it’s my job to make sure people keep doing that, make it as easy as possible and work in the most effective way.”

So-called ‘impact volunteering’ is at the heart of the Cities of Service movement. That means picking particular challenges and focusing volunteering efforts on them to make a measurable difference.

Kirklees has chosen two to get the ball rolling:

• Out and About – a project aimed at alleviating loneliness in Kirklees’ elderly population;

• MENtors – a mentoring programme for young men to help them set personal goals.

They were chosen because they are areas where lots of money is spent on the end results of the problems – loneliness leads to mental and physical health problems and high social care costs, and cash is heaped on the problems which disproportionately affect young men, such as crime, homelessness and mental health problems. The Cities of Service projects aim to tackle the root causes.

For starters, Out and About is training 30 volunteers aged 55 and over who are still in good health and able to work with older people at greater risk of isolation and loneliness.

“Simply put, loneliness will kill,” said Rachael.

The ideal way to combat it is to get people doing three things – something physically active, something mentally stimulating and something they are passionate about.

There will be different solutions for each person which is why volunteers are vital. And in these times of austerity, it is even more important that volunteers can make a difference when the state may struggle.

“We are living in a time-poor world,” said Rachael. “If you have a commodity that is an hour, we have to make that count. There are things that we as a community can do – it’s my job to ensure people are able to do that.”

Kirklees hopes the methods used in the first two schemes can be rolled out to deal with other issues such as mobilising volunteers to help the vulnerable during bad weather.

Visit www.iminkirlees.org.uk to find out more.

Out and About is focusing on recruiting ‘younger-older’ people aged 55 and over who are still mentally and physically active and willing to help.

If you’d like to find out more, visit the Committee Room, Huddersfield Library, Princess Alexandra Walk, on Thursday, 12.30pm-2.30pm, or Dewsbury Library, Railway Street, on Tuesday February 24, 10am-noon.