Special Olympics GB (SOGB) is the largest provider of year-round, all ability, sports programme in Great Britain and supports over 10,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities on a continued basis. Special Olympics St Albans (SOSA) is a branch member and we have 180 athletes and provide weekly sessions in 13 different sports. This extensive programme is led by paid coaches and supported by over 40 dedicated volunteers. They support the coach in a variety of ways; from encouragement on the athletics track, to providing one to one in the water support to our beginner swimmers, to side walking our horse riders.
We have a lot of young volunteers who come to us to complete their Duke of Edinburgh Award; they come for the 3 months, but end up staying on as they find it so rewarding. We always lose a few of our volunteers who are starting University in the summer, so I have a busy time recruiting volunteers ready for our September term. To do this, we already have a fairly steady stream of enquiries through the CVS. Building a relationship with your local CVS can really help with the recruitment of new volunteers. Also, we are lucky that our existing volunteers often persuade their friends and families to volunteer for us, as they have a great experience. I also recruit volunteers through vInspired, which is specifically for 14-25 year olds looking for volunteering opportunities.
However, when they are back home they always come in and see everyone. We feel it’s very important to keep in touch with volunteers, even when they are not currently volunteering, as we have worked hard to develop that special bond between that volunteer and our organisation. Our longest serving volunteer has been with us for 20 years, showing that the power of communication really works when retaining volunteers.
We really want our volunteers to feel valued and appreciated. We are in constant contact with them, keeping them informed of events that are going on in SOSA as we want them to feel part of the team, rather than just turning up for an hour a week. For instance, we have a Facebook page for volunteers and a volunteering handbook with all the contact details they need. When they start volunteering, I need certain forms from them, which are then sent to our Head Office. Social media is a great way to keep in contact with the young volunteers, as they are more likely to check Facebook daily than their email inbox. With these forms, I always put in some information about Special Olympics – how it started, when it started, how we are different to the Paralympics (people always get us mixed up!) and some information about learning disability. Our volunteers also have a volunteer t shirt to promote awareness of our brand.
We offer training to our volunteers such as first aid, safeguarding, coaching courses, and can supply references for university or job applications. We are very good helping young people gain the skills they need to further their career, as well as helping them gain life skills. Some of our volunteers have never met anyone with a learning disability so I always spend time with them at sessions introducing them to our athletes, but our guys are so welcoming that it doesn’t take long until they are comfortable around everyone.
For our athletes, excellence is personal achievement, a reflection of reaching one’s maximum potential – it is a goal to which everyone can aspire. This can also be said for our volunteers.