Elly, Outdoor Learning Officer and supported volunteer Lucy in the Gorcott Hill woods

Creating an accessible future through supported volunteering

28 March 2024
Ellie Jones, Outdoor Learning Officer

Volunteering can be a wonderful way to access new learning, skills, and to discover new interests which can often lead to future job opportunities. However, it can be difficult for some individuals to access these opportunities if they need extra support. This is where supported volunteering comes in – offering tailored support based on individual need and ability.

Challenges faced 

Supported individuals may have difficulties such as learning and/or physical disabilities, sensory impairment, mental health problems, or neurodiversity. In the UK population today, it is estimated that 15-20% of people are neurodivergent* and therefore have different thinking and learning styles from what’s considered typical. That is why it is important when offering volunteering opportunities that they are accessible to all. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. This is often due to systematic barriers such as procedures, programs, and policies which do not fully appreciate and consider the needs of people who require additional support. 

Offering support to empower others 

At the Heart of England Forest, we are actively working to dismantle these systematic barriers to make volunteering more inclusive and accessible. Our supported volunteered group is for young women aged 16-25 who enjoy being outdoors, are interested in nature, and would benefit from undertaking practical forestry and conservation tasks in a supportive and engaging environment. The weekly group, led by a member of the Learning and Skills team, specifically aims to engage neurodiverse young women who are not currently in education, employment, or training (NEET) due to high levels of anxiety. 

The group provides an opportunity for the young women to help build their confidence, improve their mental and physical wellbeing, and to form new friendships, whilst developing their social and communication skills. Tailored support based on individual needs and abilities is put in place to ensure that everyone has the chance to get involved, and to overcome any barriers they may have. 

Rhiannon, Tree Nursery Assistant now in full time paid employment - she is working hard weeding in the tree nursery

Only 5.1% of adults with learning disabilities are currently in paid employment* which is a very small percentage, and changes need to be made to improve this figure. This is why it is important that there are more supported volunteer opportunities and supported internships available, as these are often vital pathways to procuring employment. 

Supported Volunteer Isla  

Isla, age 17, has been accessing supported volunteering at the Heart of England Forest since January 2022. She has a great love of the outdoors and enjoys spending time in nature. When Isla is volunteering in the Forest she enjoys practical conservation tasks, practising bushcraft such as whittling, and spending time at the tree nursey. 

Isla has many hobbies and interests including history, geology, and cycling. She studied in school until year 10 and has since been home educated, enjoying the freedom of learning that brings. She hopes to be able to study geology or history at university and is planning to have a small holding with sheep in the future. 

Supported Volunteer Lucy 

Lucy, age 21, started volunteering with the Heart of England Forest in August 2023. A month later, she was featured in a segment on BBC Midlands Today with the Forest, appearing as a volunteer partaking in a seed collection activity with the nursery team. As well as volunteering, Lucy really enjoys the crafting workshops such as Christmas wreath making and learning how to whittle her own wooden butter knife. 

Lucy loves spending time outdoors, practising yoga, and taking photographs. Inspired by nature, Lucy has created natural art pieces in the Forest and written pieces of published poetry - you can find some of the poetry Lucy has written for the Heart of England Forest below! 

After finishing her art and design studies at college, Lucy started looking towards the next step in her career, which is when she found this opportunity at the Heart of England Forest:

“I heard about the volunteering opportunities by looking on the website. It was something to do after college and I like being in nature, it makes me feel good. I like animals and trees. My favourite animals are birds, especially barn owls.

Looking to the future, Lucy is keen to work in wildlife photography or animal care, fulfilling her passion for nature. 

Forest Heart’s
Ancient mountains on the horizon, beckoning’s of eternal slumber.
Sombre skies cloaked by starlight, the genesis of a new day’s sunrise.
Spindle berries gleam, vibrant jewels.
Silken spun spider webs, lustre morning dew.

Fragmented beams of light glare through sun-glazed branches.
Brittle, withering autumn leaves dance peacefully to their demise, resting motionlessly on the camouflage beneath, corroding into nothingness.
But the strong, archaic oak tree stands tall, deeply rooted, unchanged.
A misty morning and a silhouette of a mighty oak tree

Supported Volunteer Nikki  

Nikki, age 21, first started volunteering with the Heart of England Forest in autumn 2023 after her Mum came across some information about our supported volunteering opportunities. As Nikki enjoys being outside in nature it was a perfect fit, and she has really enjoyed exploring new areas of the Forest since. Nikki’s other hobbies include yoga and watching television. 

Nikki studied beauty and business at college but is unsure if these are career paths she would like to pursue. She is enjoying the new experiences volunteering with the Forest brings and is hopeful that it will help her decide what she would like to do in the future. 

Young people can be quite overwhelmed when it comes to volunteering, so these sessions with a smaller group really bridge that gap with small steps. Our supported volunteers then have the opportunity to progress to the volunteer teams’ group when they’re ready and if they want to. These smaller groups mean there is a higher staff ratio, so if someone is struggling, feeling anxious or overwhelmed, we are able to give them what they need and help them, it’s much more of a personal approach.
Elly, Outdoor Learning Officer.
A smiley picture of Elly, Outdoor Learning Officer

Flourishing with the Forest 

It is incredibly important to establish safe and trusting relationships in the early stages to help build a solid foundation for development in the long-term. The main aim of the group is to focus on the young women’s confidence and socialisation skills, which t have already improved significantly. In the last few months, Isla, Nikki and Lucy have been able to successfully integrate into a group environment, which is a huge achievement for them all. 

“It’s been really lovely to work and get to know the young people as their volunteering journey at the Heart of England Forest has progressed. It has been great to watch their confidence grow as well as see them learn new skills. They are all so talented in their own ways and I am excited to see their continued growth. My hope for them is all that they realise that the world is truly their oyster.” – Ellie, Outdoor Learning Officer. 

If you feel you or someone you know would benefit from joining the Gorcott Hill Supported Volunteering and Social Group for Young Women, please contact Ellie via email on ellie.jones@heartofenglandforest.org to find out more. 

Tall grass and meadow flowers on a spring day