For the last seven summers, I have been volunteering for Oxford and District Mencap residential holidays. For those of you who don’t know, Mencap is a charity which supports people with learning disabilities.
At Oxford Mencap, residential holidays take place throughout July and August every year (I volunteer for the young adults week) and we look after a group of about 15 people. This is usually 1-1 care and the guests we are responsible for have a range of abilities, from mild autism to cerebral palsy and Down's Syndrome. We go on days out: swimming, to the theme park, bowling, the list goes on. It is a chance for their families and carers to have some respite, but most importantly it’s a chance for guests to meet up with their friends (many of our guests have been returning to Mencap for years and years!), have fun and enjoy activities that they don’t otherwise have the opportunity to do in their everyday lives. I consider it a bit of a holiday for myself too! Yes, it is hard work but it is extremely rewarding and I’ve made bonds at Mencap with both guests and volunteers that I will cherish for a lifetime.
This year, I wanted to share my Mencap experience with KI. I did a presentation to the team one Wednesday morning, and Courtney and Mikey were so interested that they decided to join me in volunteering this summer.
Having done it for so long, I may have taken for granted how overwhelming it can be for first-time volunteers. Meeting someone for the first time and being instantly responsible for them 24/7 can be daunting at the best of times, let alone if that person can’t necessarily communicate in the same way as you. Despite this, I can safely say that Courtney and Mikey both did a stellar job. It was heart-warming to see them get stuck in and form all those bonds that I did for the first time seven years ago. Let’s hear from them…!
Mencap was strange for me. I have little to no experience with learning disabilities, and I’ve never dedicated a week of my time to people I don’t know. So why on earth did I do this? Aside from Frankie’s enchanting presentation, I felt that this was an opportunity. I’ve always known that I can be a ‘nice guy’ when needed, but this was an opportunity for me to find out who I really am, and understand a side of life I know so little about.
It was hardly a hero’s journey. From the start I had slight regrets and was worried if I’d be capable of pushing through a whole week. I was assigned a guest who was a regular at Mencap. His name is Ben and he is notorious for loving motorcycles and wandering off in search of company that isn’t their carer (and the engine roars of a Honda bike).
I struggled a lot as I wanted to be helpful and give comfort to the team leaders, but also needed to allow Ben to enjoy his holiday. It was hard to strike that balance as he would not sit next to me, walk next to me, or follow plans if it was me asking him. This led to me being a bit lax, always keeping checks on where he was, but allowing him the freedom to be with people he wanted to be with. This, understandably, was met with a lot of questions about where my guest was. Who’s with them? What are they doing? I felt very stuck because I wasn’t making anyone happy, neither Ben nor the leaders.
Come Wednesday, I wasn’t really sure why I bothered coming to Mencap. It was the day-trip to Drayton Manor and I was grouped with Courtney and her new guest, Samantha. She was demanding, but seeing as Ben was more independent, I was able to give Courtney some support. I will never forget that day at Drayton Manor. Not for the thrills or screams, but the relationship I built, alongside Courtney, with our new sister, Sam.
For the remaining days, I spent much more time with Sam but also grew more comfortable with Ben. I learned that whilst he remained distant, there was a level of respect that had grown. Just from me being there, Ben felt safe to enjoy the time with his friends.
However, I could never have imagined the connection I would build with Sam. She demanded a lot of attention but would return everything in affection. For example, I received a handwritten note from her which I never thought I’d get. Not so much the note, but a guest’s love. She shared a lot about herself with me, and as silly as it may sound, I began to understand that these guests all live a long life between the annual weeks at Mencap. They carry so much.
I realised what Mencap was about and who it was for. It’s not just about learning disabilities. It’s about giving love to those who need it. Everything I felt insecure about earlier in the week was gone. Any issues I had with leaders were meaningless. I learned what it means to truly care for someone else and understood how something seemingly small can be so important for someone else.
Thank you, Mencap. Hopefully we’ll see you next year!
Having worked with SEN children and adults in various roles and settings for the past 7 years, I thought I knew what to expect going into my first Mencap experience. I was wrong. It was one of the most incredible, yet most challenging weeks of my life, it is now abundantly clear why the volunteers I met go back year after year. I can’t find words that will do justice to how beautiful the week was, but I’m going to try.
A lovely colleague of mine actually recently shared an article about ‘glimmers’- the lesser known and opposite to ‘triggers’. A glimmer can be defined loosely as a small moment of joy, happiness or calm, (popularised in 2018 in a book by clinical social worker Deb Dana, and part of Dr Stephen Porge’s ‘Polyvagal Theory’, 1995). Mencap week was FULL of glimmers- from the first moment you are able to successfully communicate with a non-verbal guest, to witnessing a guest having a nice time with their friends, with their volunteer, or even going to sleep happy. And all the many hugs, all the smiles and all the giggles. Too many precious moments to count!
I must add that I am so in awe of the leaders and the other volunteers, especially Frankie, who has been doing this religiously for 7 years, and Michelangelo, who took a leap of faith and tried something new. Although it’s challenging and there are lots of tricky moments too, it’s truly an experience that you can’t help but fall in love with.
We’d like to thank KI for the opportunity to share this special experience with the team, and we think it’s clear that many of our KI values align closely with the work we do at Mencap.
If you’d like to learn more about Mencap and the work we do please take a look at the following links. You may even find you’d like to volunteer yourself… we’d definitely recommend it!