Volunteering in the Living Room - Part 3

Thursday, April 16, 2015

We’ve heard from the Living Room volunteers. We’ve also heard from Central City Concern clients. Today, Robin Robberson, the Living Room Coordinator, and Erika Armsbury, Old Town Recovery Center’s Director of Clinical Services, share their thoughts about the value and virtue of volunteerism in the Living Room.

• • •

How do volunteers benefit from giving their time in the Living Room?
Robin: People are really moved by volunteering in the Living Room. They really enjoy the Healing and Recovery group. Sometimes they work out their schedule to make sure they can be a part of that and participate in that with our members. I think that helps our members.

And the relationships. The people. Volunteers are struck by the kindness. Some of our members may present themselves in a way that might scare people at first, but eventually volunteers don’t want to leave because of the relationships they make.

Erika: I think what we all get from being here in this building (Old Town Recovery Center) is an opportunity to be of service. For a lot of people, that’s a drive. I think it’s an honor and a privilege to be invited into people’s lives and to experience people’s lives that others would never imagine has the richness that it does.

You have a front-row humanistic experience that other people drive by and don’t even notice. Your ideas and myths about people living with mental illnesses and living without homes totally get dispelled.

What’s the most important quality an individual brings to volunteerism, whether in the Living Room or in general?
E: I think compassion. I think any volunteer experience can be deeper if it comes from being driven by service, not just by gain.

R: Open-mindedness.

E: Definitely open-mindedness. And a willingness to do more listening than talking. Coming in understanding that you have something to learn and that you’re not coming in to do. Let’s be honest: being service-driven can have a flip side where a person wants to just come in and “fix the poor people.” Compare that to coming into our world – this world – and just being an ear. That can actually help a person more. Creating and taking advantage of opportunities to engage.

R: Like that saying, “Don’t just do something. Sit there!” But truly, having an open mind and just being willing goes a long way.

E: It’s the same quality that’s good for clinicians is good for volunteers. A willingness to engage on the same level. To come into the room and equalize the power differential.

What makes volunteering in the Living Room a unique experience?
R: In the Living Room, we never talk about diagnoses. We never talk about medication. It’s highly discouraged to bring up clinical stuff. And for volunteers, that helps create this environment that is centered on people. Just people.

You’re coming into a center that you know is a community mental health clinic, and you know that. But when you’re here volunteering, you’re creating relationships with people. When volunteers come in, they become just as much a member of the Living Room as someone who is receiving services here.

E: I think that volunteering here provides a level of exposure and compassion that I think ultimately has to have an effect on the volunteer when they go back out into the world. Like, form volunteering here, they can have a myth about mental illness or addiction or homelessness dispelled, and then they’re talking with someone else about it, and so on. I think about the far-reaching effects of that and how it can change people’s lives when they’re here.

How do you see Living Room members benefiting from the presence of volunteers?
R: Members get attached volunteers. But that’s why I try to get a lot of volunteers coming through the Living Room: so that they can make lots of different relationships and de-institutionalize and get to build social skills with a whole bunch of different people.

E: Like getting accustomed to a start and end.

R: Right, having that kind of practice is really useful and helpful. It helps people learn flexibility, which is really important for the folks who utilize our services.

And there’s a ripple effect for a Living Room member who comes in here and meets a volunteer that they don’t know, who gives them their undivided attention. And that happening over and over again with different volunteers. It really builds people’s self-worth.

Can you share something that simply would not have happened if it weren’t for volunteers?
R: There’s a member of the Living Room who, on first glance, you’d think is just a grumpy old man. He and several other older members regularly participate in yoga sessions led by our yoga volunteers, Andrea and E.B. He acts like he hates it, but he really doesn’t. I’ll hear him in the same breath, say “I hate this. Now what do I do?”

He participates in yoga week after week. Every time. Why? Because he knows that someone cares about him.

It took us half a year to get people to participate. But the yoga volunteers kept showing up, kept coming and participating in group sessions. And they kept putting the time in to get to know people. It’s the relationships that our yoga volunteers have built with our Living Room members that makes all of this work.

Any last thoughts?
E: I started off as a volunteer at Bradley Angle house 20 years ago. Volunteering fed my soul. I hope that’s what it does for our volunteers, too.

R: I love how diverse our volunteers are. I love that we have younger volunteers and older volunteers and people of all kinds. Some volunteers have been touched personally by mental illness in their families. Other volunteers come in here with little understanding of mental illness or addictions, but they are willing to be present. I love our volunteers.

• • •

During National Volunteer Week, we’re exploring the value and impact of volunteerism at Central City Concern through the lens of the Living Room, a program of the Old Town Recovery Center (OTRC). Earlier this week, we’ve seen shared:

CCC’s Volunteer Coordinator, Eric Reynolds, will be sharing some final thoughts about volunteers tomorrow.

The Living Room is a shared, safe place for OTRC patients, many of whom are actively living with and managing behavioral and mental illness. It functions as a place for clients to come and engage in group sessions, hang out, find community, and participate in group activities. Anyone who participates in the Living Room – clients, CCC staff members, interns, and volunteers alike – is known as a member.