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Maya Kirby is an undergraduate student in the School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS), studying French and Spanish. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Maya has been volunteering virtually with Bookmark, a charity which works to improve the reading skills and confidence of children through delivering a variety of one-to-one tailored programmes. 


Tell us a little about your volunteering
As a volunteer for the charity ‘Bookmark Reading’, I volunteer myself for available programmes with 5-8 year olds across the country who have been nominated by their school for reading support. The work of the charity is to boost reading skills and confidence for the kids that they help by reading stories and playing literacy games with them in 30-minute sessions twice weekly in each programme with one child. You can sign up for multiple programmes according to your availability and each programme lasts 6 weeks (comprising of 12 sessions with the child). Before the pandemic, it worked that you would travel into the school and deliver the programme in-person, but the charity adapted really well under the pressure of the pandemic and moved to an online platform which has also made many more opportunities to volunteer accessible, no matter where you live.

How did you find out about the role?
Through the UCL Volunteering opportunities postings.

Why did you want to become a volunteer?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I knew I would find it harder to find a paid position that I was comfortable with (i.e. not public-facing/retail) and also joining a society was not an option as nothing was going ahead in-person or on campus, but I still wanted to participate in something outside of my studies during the academic year: volunteering was the obvious option.

What difference do you feel you’ve made by volunteering?
So far I’ve completed one programme and I was asked to take up a second programme with the same child and even just in the short progress of 6 weeks I saw a difference in the child’s confidence to ask questions if they weren’t sure – admitting they didn’t know something is a very big first step! Mostly it can be noticed that the child enjoys each session as it is completed; at the beginning of sessions when we chat briefly, I can tell that they are excited to begin reading with me which I hope will be maintained when the programmes end and continue with them throughout their lives.

What impact has volunteering had on you?

From the very beginning of my interactions with Bookmark, my interest was sparked, and it has helped me to clarify my goals for my future career.

I realised my passion for reading and literature has been consistent throughout my life and that I should follow that path of interest into the workplace. Further than that, during a turbulent period in my life, the scheduled sessions with Bookmark both gave me a routine appointment to motivate me, as well as the interaction with children bringing their excitement and joy into my life.

What’s the best thing about volunteering?
The best thing about volunteering has to be the sense of purpose/fulfilment that it gives my time. I feel good about the contribution that I’m making to something wider.

And the most challenging? How did you overcome the challenges?
The challenging part of this particular volunteering position is that the online platform, despite being an ingenious adaptation for the pressure of the pandemic, is hard for the child to navigate at times. As the adult, I accept that sometimes they might become frustrated and lose concentration, and more than that, as a current student, I can definitely empathise with the lack of interest in online learning/virtual interactions at times! Overcoming this is a lesson in patience and tolerance of an imperfect situation.

Tell us about something memorable that’s happened to you whilst volunteering
A memorable moment would unfortunately be the time that I had to adapt and play literacy games for an entire session, only communicating via drawings and typing on the platform because the child’s laptop sound wasn’t working and they couldn’t hear me, nor could I hear them! I did my best in the moment and found it quite amusing as we struggled but somehow managed to complete a vocabulary activity.

Would you recommend volunteering? If so, why?
Of course I’d recommend volunteering, particularly with Bookmark Reading as the need for volunteers to be paired with children currently waiting for programmes is definitely there! It is a very flexible opportunity with your commitment potentially being as low as two hours per week, if you’re only volunteering for one programme at a time. There was a lot of training support and continues to be support throughout my time as a volunteer which is really appreciated, you definitely won’t feel like you’re thrown in the deep-end if you haven’t had much experience with children or in a teaching environment previously.

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