Giving time for free

Sian Turner speaks to a student about his experience of volunteering at university

Students volunteer at a local school

Students volunteer at a local school

At first sight, they seem like the most unlikely pair. One is a tall, broad student with a pierced eyebrow and a blond streak running through his tousled hair. The other is a fourteen year old boy, just in from school and standing a good foot and a half shorter. However, the bond between them is apparent as soon as you meet them. Robin is a third year Linguistics student at York, and for the last year he has been a mentor to David, a young person with cerebral palsy who met Robin through an organisation called PACT.

PACT is a project run by The Children’s Society to help disabled children and young people. The scheme pairs up individuals with student volunteers who then help them to get involved in community activities, raising their sense of self-esteem and independence.

Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term for a variety of conditions generally affecting the parts of the brain that control mobility. Cerebral palsy tends to affect movement and coordination, and it can also be accompanied by other conditions including epilepsy, and affect sensation and perception. David’s cerebral palsy can affect his speech and writing, both important to self-expression and communication. However, it is immediately apparent that he does not allow his condition to get in the way. He eagerly comes over to shake my hand, introducing himself and is keen and eager to tell me all about his experience of PACT: “When I first met Robin, I didn’t know what to expect, I thought we would be doing something like homework,” he says. The pair both laugh when they remember this, they ended up doing something much more exciting than homework.

The pair aim to have a session together every week – “David’s a busy guy, he’s got a lot of commitments. I have to fit into his diary.” In their first session they discovered a shared love of music and decided to make an album under the band name of ‘One Friend.’

“I don’t really know how it started, it was a bit of a joke to begin with,” says David. They’ve now completed their album, and produced a video inspired by their work with The Children’s Society. He writes most of the lyrics, whilst Robin takes control of the technical side, arranging the music and producing the album itself. “If we were making a film, I’d be the producer and David would be the director,” says Robin.

It’s clear as they speak about the project that it has been hugely important for both of them. They both smile widely as they discuss their album, comparing their relative ups and downs and the merits of each of their songs. For David in particular, the sessions with Robin have been particularly therapeutic.
“It was really significant to David that we were able to make an album – he really likes expressing himself and letting people know how he feels and what his opinions are, both for his own sake and for that of others,” commented Robin. “Being given the support to enable him to express himself fully with music has been a great way to do this.”

David admitted himself that the project – and most importantly Robin’s friendship – has had a huge impact on his life in the last year: “Robin is more than a friend. I have a brother in him and we have a good time. Last year, I had a bad time and he was a little bit like an uncle to me.”

David is also passionate about spreading awareness about the challenges facing young people and the benefits of PACT. He sees their music as a huge part of this project.

“We’re still writing music now. I don’t know where we’ll go but I hope that the work we do will affect a lot of people, especially young people.”

They have recently produced a video for their favourite song – ‘Little Orphan Boy’ – which highlights the issue of homelessness amongst children and the work done by The Children’s Society with young runaways. The pair also played at a charity concert at Betty’s cafe in October – “It was amazing,” says David, grinning widely. “Really good. I feel like it was the start of our professional relationship.”

In light of the work they’ve done together, David recently nominated Robin for a Vinspired Award – a competition to recognise the achievements of young volunteers throughout the country. He won the regional award for Yorkshire and the Humber and will be travelling to London later this month to collect his award.

Despite his achievements within the last year, Robin had no prior experience of working with people with disabilities:

“I heard about PACT at Freshers’ Fayre in my first year,” he commented. “I was really keen on the idea of fostering a really strong one to one link between volunteers and young people. PACT seemed like a unique opportunity to make a real and lasting positive impact on the local community during my time at York. I have learnt so much about disability over the past year, principally from spending time with David and getting to know him. It has been a very eye opening experience that has ended up making a massive difference to my whole perspective on life. It has been without a shadow of a doubt the best thing I have done in my life so far.”

Anyone interested in getting involved with PACT should email [email protected]

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