Octavia Foundation aims to connect people affected by unemployment, ill health, social isolation or low incomes in central and west London with opportunities for positive personal change. As part of their work, they co-ordinate a Befriending service, intended to help reduce loneliness and isolation with the older people living in Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea. The service heavily relies on volunteers who provide the friendly face for those who may be feeling isolated or lonely, either as part of a group event or through weekly one to one befriending sessions. Read on to hear from Octavia Foundation and from an LSE student volunteer.

Our volunteers make a huge difference. Without them, we simply could not support as many people as we do, and we are in desperate need of more to meet demand. We have various volunteering opportunities to suit different individuals or groups and companies who are looking to do some good in their local communities, like some of our volunteers from LSE, people like Sophia.

Sophia’s story

“Hi, my name is Sophia Okukenu and I studied History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Over my graduation summer in 2018, Viki Chinn, my employment adviser suggested I volunteer for a non‐for‐profit organisation called Octavia. I really enjoyed helping my experience and I’d love to share it briefly.

I started as an Older People Community Worker and really valued every moment. Every Wednesday I took part in hosting coffee mornings at the local coffee shop for senior citizens in West London to socialise and to bring a sense of community to their lives. The experience of spending time with my coffee morning group was like catching up with a good friend. I looked forward to hearing about their week, their views on politics, life’s wisdoms, their family and more importantly just seeing them. At first, I was a bit shy and reserved because I was not used to socialising with so many people from different backgrounds. The team from Octavia, Jemma and Debbie, encouraged me to attend a Befriending course on how to relate with vulnerable and older adults. This gave me a run‐down on ways to come out of my shell – such as asking about their families or what they enjoyed doing. As obvious as this was, it made such a difference to my time and interpersonal skills as I learnt so much from my members’ lives and experiences just by asking basic questions and gleaning what I could from what they shared with me.

Coffee mornings are always relaxing. Mobile‐free, full of laughter and, sometimes just a great time to reflect. Reflecting back, I learnt a lot of lessons from my group members who taught me three valuable lessons.

First, I learnt that in life one must show up – one of my members has a chronic health condition which constantly means she is in severe pain. However, that did not stop her from leaving her home every day of the week to attend: the coffee morning, her social clubs, volunteer and visiting family. I admired her greatly as she showed me that just because life is hard does not mean you have to stop smiling or stop doing the things that make you human. Showing up, smiling and making conversation can sometimes be the best antidote for anyone’s pain – physical or mental.

Secondly, I learnt that asking someone how their week went can be a great way to learn more about people. Getting weekly updates on housing renovations, one’s state of health, what they cooked for lunch or even their cat made me feel included in their world and made me realise just how human everyone is.

Lastly, serving tea and coffee regularly made me feel more satisfied and fulfilled than I had ever thought I would. Knowing my coffee members’ names, recognising them as they walked in and knowing what tea, coffee or hot chocolate they like really made me included in a special way. Although cheesy, it made me reflect on how as humans we are all involved in one race ‐ running the human race. A sense of community starts with serving others and I’m truly grateful to have been given the opportunity to grow a community with individuals I serve.”

Volunteers at Octavia Foundation

On the other side, for us at Octavia Foundation, working with volunteers like Sophia is invaluable.  Sophia’s capability to listen and be proactive has made a world of difference at the Coffee Morning she has helped to facilitate. Those who attend the Coffee Morning love seeing Sophia and miss her greatly if she is unable to attend. Working with Sophia myself has been fantastic, as I have been able to trust Sophia to converse with the group and ensure their comfort whilst I have been preparing drinks or taking orders.

We really need more volunteers to help reduce loneliness in our local communities.  We especially need One-to-One befrienders, which involves spending an hour or two a week with an older person in Westminster or Kensington and Chelsea to have a friendly chat. This is something many people take for granted but to someone feeling isolated or lonely, it can be a life changing connection. Some of our befrienders report  going 5 or 6 days without seeing anyone at all. The TV being their only source of company. Having a volunteer to come and have a chat can break up the week, provide human contact and give them a reason to feel valued. And it isn’t one sided. The friendships that grow from befriender to befriendee are often described as incredibly meaningful, many lasting beyond the 6 months programme.

To ensure the success and compatibility of each match, we meet with potential Befriendees and form a profile of them that will be sent to prospective volunteers. We aim to match people with similar interests or personalities so these matches are able to flourish from the start. We operate on an open door policy, meaning that if either party ever have any concerns or queries then we can always be contacted, and we encourage volunteers to keep us updated.

Volunteers also can develop skills like communication, listening and sometimes problem-solving – skills that are valuable to employers and for life.. As a testament to Sophia’s hard work and determination, her time volunteering with us as well as those she gained at university, has enabled her to secure a HR role with LexisNexis. Although the befriending Group she helped to lead is sad to see her go, everyone has been rooting for her and are so proud of her success.

We greatly appreciate all the hard work our volunteers put in, and without people like Sophia we wouldn’t be able to carry on what we do to help those suffering from loneliness and isolation. If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, please visit the following link to apply: https://www.octaviafoundation.org.uk/volunteer/apply_now

If Sophia and the Octavia Foundation have inspired you to volunteer, check out one of our other 200+ ongoing opportunities or book a one-to-one with David Coles, the Volunteer Centre Manager if you have more questions. If you are short on time, then take a look at the one-off opportunities organised by the LSE Volunteer Centre. And why not follow us on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram to stay up-to-date with our events and opportunities and read our blog for more volunteering tips and stories.