Sarah Thomson, 43, from Gosport, has been volunteering with the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) for the last 18 months. She has been supporting the CRC run About Turn Project in Gosport, a regular group for probation service users located in a community setting.
Sarah said: “I see myself as a ‘guide’ for the group. I am a person who deals with barriers to communications, establishes a climate of trust, and assists the group in functioning effectively. Central to this being genuine in the sessions and demonstrating care, respect and understanding.”
Hampshire & Isle of Wight CRC Volunteer Co-ordinator Calliope Daouti said: “Sarah has been a fantastic support to the group. Over time she developed into a skilled group facilitator. She is a clear and sympathetic communicator and she brought lots of energy and commitment to the group.”
As a volunteer, Sarah plays a leading role facilitating group sessions alongside a co-facilitator. She also gathers and welcomes everyone and makes sure that the group activities can start on time.
Typical groups start with introductions a discussion on boundaries. This is a great ice breaker and gets people talking quite quickly. Then Sarah leads a group ‘check in’, where she asks participants to tell the group how their week has been or what is going on for them. Taking part is voluntary and any participate who doesn’t want to talk, is respected and not pushed.
Sarah manages the rest of the group whilst one person is speaking at a time. For example, if the person is interrupted, Sarah will stop the interruption and make sure the speaker is given space. The group are offered a chance to respond or work with what has been said. Sarah will provide a summary of the discussion before moving on to the next person.
Using the right questions is a skill which Sarah has picked up, as she explained:
“I use open ended questions, and then reflect back what has been said in my own words to clarify what has been said and that I have understood correctly. I also highlight positives from what has been said.
“I am constantly observing and listening to everyone. However, I am careful not to judge or analyse them, I simply provide them with a safe place to talk about their lives and feelings. I use open body language, nodding of the head, active listening, and empathetic listening. I try to not give advice but offer the group a chance to respond to what they hear.”
Sarah describes her role: “I create an accepting, safe and tolerant climate within the group, where boundaries are respected through gentle reminding where necessary. I also promote encouragement, respect, care and understanding within the group members.”
Sarah continued: “Personally I need to have a clear head and concentrate on the group, ignoring any personal chatter in my head. I respect each person for where they are at that moment, without pushing any of my judgements as to where I think they should be or what they should have done.”
About Turn Projects can be quite chaotic with different people coming and going at different times. Some group members may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and may be disruptive or aggressive. Sarah has learned ways to diffuse incidents and help people to either relax or leave the group in a calm way. She liaises with probation to record and monitor behaviour.
Sarah is especially vigilant with assessing potential disruptive members on arrival as it is preferable to settle them or have them leave before the session starts as it can be disheartening for the group.
During the break and lunch time, Sarah continues to offer active listening with group members but also keeps an eye open to the ‘goings on’ outside and any negative behaviour taking place.
Sarah is leaving the group to take up a place on a humanistic counselling degree course at Chichester University. She commented: “I have absolutely loved facilitating this group and I am thankful to my co-facilitators and to the CRC for giving me the opportunity to develop my skills and grow in confidence.”