Hi, I'm a volunteer for The Include Choir | Include.org

Award-winning volunteer – Sofia

What does it take to be recognised as The Mayor’s Young Volunteer of the year?

Please meet one of our most generous, energetic and versatile volunteers…

Sofia first got in touch with Include aged 13, to ask if she could do her Duke of Edinburgh (DofE) Award volunteering section with the charity.

For some young people, volunteering as part of DofE may a bit of a “tick the box” exercise to get the award. But not for Sofia.

She says, “I wanted to work with people. All my friends were going, ‘I just want to get this bit over with so I’ll just go to the public library for a few weeks and quietly help out there.’  But I didn’t want to go to the library! (I thought) ‘I don’t think I can cope with that! So, I’ll find something else that will be more fun’.”

What she didn’t have in experience she made up for in enthusiasm, empathy, humour and versatility. Include’s volunteering experience is a great fit for Sofia.

“Include is for everyone that wants to learn and wants to have fun and meet new people that they wouldn’t necessarily meet.”

Sofia’s talents and willingness to learn new things – mean she has helped Include in a wide variety of ways. She famously understates her contribution as “I just do a little bit of everything!” But really, she is an essential part of the charity – keeping important things like AV technology running smoothly during rehearsals, helping people to feel welcome and calm, and creating accessible Easy Read resources.

This last year has uncovered even more of what Sofia has to offer. She helps Include to rise to the challenges of Covid19 – adapting to new platforms like Zoom, piloting a covid-safe roadshow and doing more than ever on our social media channels to help raise awareness of what we do to break down barriers for people with communication needs.

Follow the Include Instagram account that Sofia manages here

When asked how volunteering for Include has benefitted her, she says, “I got to do so many things that I wouldn’t have. I’ve been responsible for things and I’ve learnt how to be responsible for other people and, you know, build trust with others. Obviously being the youngest, you don’t know if people are going to trust you that much. But I’ve been trusted with big things. And taken them forward and have kind of shown that I can do it.

“So yeah, it’s fantastic to have a charity that have just gone, ‘Yep, Sofia can do this. She’s our girl.'”

A few years down the line, working with people with additional needs is something Sofia is embracing in her working life too. She landed a teaching assistant role in a local school, working with a young boy who has autism.  Being able to help calm and distract him are skills she has used in choir rehearsals. She remembers one rehearsal: “A member of The Include Choir was having a hard time because there were lots of upcoming event date announcements and then it was break time, when people go to get a cup of tea and chat. I noticed that he got a bit stressed. I took him to the side and was like, ‘Do you want me to get you your biscuit and a drink?’ And I told him, ‘I’ll get the dates printed out for you.’”

Sofia also works behind the counter in Boots and her Include experience has been helpful there too.  As an Include volunteer she has learnt Makaton signing to support people with a range of communication needs, and this has given her the confidence to also learn some British Sign Language.

“I see a lot of deaf customers in Boots. My colleague was struggling to help a deaf couple once, and was just shouting. So, I went over and I signed, “Do you want to buy with cash or card?” and ”Can I take my mask down so you can lip read?” Now if deaf people come to Boots, they seem to navigate in my direction!”

“I try to do my bit in the community to make everyone feel included and I just love seeing people who join Include connect. It’s like a big family. Seeing the support workers get involved as well as the members, when everyone is joining in, is fantastic!”

“I remember watching two Include Choir members with different levels of communication adapting to each other. He was signing to her using Makaton signs that he just learned from a song – really trying hard to sign and talk to her. She is limited verbally and does use a lot of Makaton.  He had an idea – and went to get an iPad with a supported communication app on it – and then those two were having like a conversation on the iPad and it was so sweet. And it’s in moments like those that all our team’s hard work is so very worth it.”

Everyone at Include is proud of our girl Sofia for the wonderful achievement of receiving this award and for all the creativity, energy and warmth she brings to everything she does.

See Sofia and find out more about volunteering with Include here

Penny Sims
Penny Sims
Communications and Partnerships Manager

Meet Danni – super support worker, valued volunteer

Hi! My name is Danni, and I’m a volunteer for The Include Choir. The first time I came to the Include Choir, however, wasn’t as a volunteer but as a support worker. 

I’d been allocated to support a lady one afternoon, and this included taking her to a new activity. I didn’t know much about it; only that it was a choir, which I thought could be fun. My client, like most people, loves music. I myself enjoy a bit of singing. So, although I was coming towards the end of a long shift and was quite tired, I was looking forward to it.

By the end of the evening, my tiredness had vanished, and I was elated. The Include Choir was a revelation in how a truly inclusive approach can benefit people with learning disabilities, and I came away feeling as though I’d been given a glimpse into a better world – one where people with different communication needs are valued, respected, and able to find their voices. 

I came to support work with a dream of helping people with learning disabilities to achieve their full potential, and to lead the most fulfilling and happy lives possible. As an inexperienced young carer, I didn’t know exactly how to go about this, but I figured I would pick it up along the way. And while this is somewhat true, The Include Choir showed me things which I might never have learned on my own or in another setting…

I learned about objects of reference, and how useful they can be for people who may struggle to think in abstracts. I saw how much more easily some people understood information when it was presented pictorially, instead of just spoken aloud. I realised just how many ways there are to make sure a person with sensory impairments feels just as included and engaged as their peers.

Learning some Makaton was a bonus, and I was pleased to expand on my knowledge of signs; however, my initial thought was that this was a skill I’d sadly never use in my current care home. The clients at my home didn’t sign, and so there was no point in confusing them by introducing Makaton. Or so I thought! Despite having had Makaton training in the past, it was at the Choir that I learned that SPEAKING as you sign is an absolute necessity. Finally, it clicked that Makaton added additional context for the words being spoken – designed not to replace speech, but to help those who process differently to pick up on the key points of a sentence which might otherwise have been lost.

Watching the choir make music together has been incredible. Everyone’s contributions are encouraged and valued, and it’s wonderful to see how positive people feel when they attend – whether they have learning disabilities or not. I feel this is because of the respectful approach, and the efforts made to make sure every choir member is heard, and is able to connect.

Original songs tackle complex subjects like the Mental Capacity Act (MCA) in easy to understand language.  Hearing this song always brings a tear to my eye – it’s wonderful to see a room full of people who are directly impacted by the MCA not only understanding the complex subject matter, but feeling empowered to use that knowledge to make choices about their lives! On a personal note, I can also honestly say that I understand the Act better now than I did before I began coming to the choir, and am far more confident in the many different approaches that can be taken in assessing capacity. Imagine if all support workers could hum this little song whenever they were unsure! The world would be a less restrictive place for the people we support, I think. 

It’s no secret that The Include Choir does wonders for their members. But as a resource for support workers to learn about inclusivity, communication, and learning disability rights, it is hugely overlooked. I have learned new ways of communication that I would never have thought of using before, and I’ve seen them actually work. I have learned hundreds of Makaton signs, and the repetition of weekly choir practice has them firmly lodged in my brain. I feel empowered to go to my work each day, and find out what is needed to meet the people I care for on their own level, and that brings me great joy. 

I would encourage every support worker who is able to attend The Include Choir to make the most of it. If you came to care work because you want to make a difference in the lives of people with learning disabilities, inclusive communication is really the only place to start.

To experience The Include Choir Online (while we can’t meet physically due to Covid19) check out our Facebook page. We also have volunteering opportunities during lockdown, lockdown easing and beyond.

Penny Sims
Penny Sims
Communications and Partnerships Manager