IWA Trustee Gillian Smith - Volunteer of the Month October 2015

Created on 13/10/2015

Gillian was introduced to life on the waterways at just 18 months old. As the daughter of IWA stalwarts, Audrey and David Smith, she discovered a passion for volunteering from a very young age. Gillian has been involved with North Lancashire & Cumbria Branch, organised Wild over Waterways activities for children, got muddy on IWA's Waterway Recovery Group Canal Camps, cooked for hungry dignitaries and volunteers, chaired IWA's North West Region committee, and is currently a member of Finance Committee as well as serving as an elected Trustee.
Find out what she's got to say...

When did you first become involved with the inland waterways?

I’ve been around the inland waterways since I was literally 'knee high to a grasshopper'! Mum and dad have had a boat since I was about 18 months old and canal holidays were part of our childhood. Weekends away, summer holidays, cruising all over the UK network, rallies and festivals, canal clean-ups – you name it, we did it. One of my fondest memories is being allowed to work the tea urn at one of the Ashtac events! I suppose it has always been in my blood, in fact more than we originally thought. I’ve just been doing some family history research and have found out that my great grandfather was a lock keeper on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal near Wigan, in Leeds and at Bingley Five Rise.

When did you first volunteer with IWA and what roles have you had since then?

"...at the end of the day it comes down to the people. Friends for life."

As a family we have always been involved with IWA and so our volunteering started at an early age. In 1975 dad was harbourmaster at the IWA National Rally in York and we all helped out there in our own way – I loved being in the office helping register boats and making sure the lists were up to date! I hate to think how many boaters’ goody bags I have helped stuff over the years!

Once I had graduated and moved back to the North West I joined the local branch committee and became involved in Waterways for Youth, as it was then. I organised Waterways for Youth (WfY), and subsequently Wild over Waterways (WOW) activities at small local events and at several National Festivals. I loved having the opportunity to engage children and families in the waterways and giving them a taster of its rich heritage, its environmental importance, safety and leisure. It was great to be able to work alongside other passionate canal enthusiasts and share their knowledge, expertise and fun. The passport scheme was, and still is, an inspirational way of engaging children and families in the rich and diverse waterways network.

Since then I have been on IWA's North West Region Committee and was Chair for a period which involved me being on the board of trustees. I have also been elected to the Trustees in my own right and have also been on the Finance Committee for several years. Having been away travelling for several months I have returned home to find some exciting ideas and plans developing for the Bicentenary of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal which is in 2016. Since the canal runs through four of our IWA branches I am really excited at having the opportunity of working alongside and liaising between the four branches, local canal groups and Canal & River Trust as a range of events are planned along the length of the canal. It’s going to be a great year!

"I think my vegetarian curry at the Hebden Bridge Trail Boat Festival is probably one of most infamous catering catastrophes"

Away from committees and meetings I have also been involved a little bit in IWA's Waterway Recovery Group. I have attended a few Camps and have even been Camp cook on the odd occasion. I think my vegetarian curry at the Hebden Bridge Trail Boat Festival is probably one of most infamous catering catastrophes – just to say that it involved my fingers, a blender and a trip to A&E! I was also part of the Egg and Cressy Catering team at several National Festivals. The challenge was to cater at the National Chairman’s Lunch where local and national civic dignitaries were entertained. We catered in a marquee with no running water and no cooking facilities other than a burco. You have to be creative in such circumstances and it wouldn’t have worked without the great team that we had.

What have you enjoyed most about taking on a variety of roles as an IWA volunteer?

This one is simple – the fun, the laughter and the friendship. Of course I have learnt lots of new skills (who would have thought I would ever drive a dumper?), met some amazing people and had the opportunity to visit some great places all over the country but at the end of the day it comes down to the people. Friends for life.

What does your current role as a Finance Committee member entail?

Finance Committee is responsible for monitoring the financial systems and procedures. As a committee we manage the budget process, review and approve interim management accounts, set Key Performance Indicators, recommend risk assessment policies, oversee the Association’s investment portfolio – and the list goes on.  I am certainly no accountant, don’t really have a grasp on the FTSE index or really understand the finer details of the investment market. However, what I do bring to the committee is a different perspective, a practical approach and an understanding of how the IWA works at many levels. Its good to look at things in a different way and I like to think that I can ask the simple questions which sometimes make us stop and think about the basics, our aims and objectives, what we want to achieve and how we can support our membership.

As a Trustee what do you have to do?

"...we have to make sure that the Association is fit for purpose today and that we can face both today’s and tomorrow’s challenges as well as build on our historic successes and achievements. "

Being a Trustee can have its challenges and its frustrations.  The world we live in today is very different to that when the IWA was first started and as Trustees we have to make sure that the Association is fit for purpose today and that we can face both today’s and tomorrow’s challenges as well as build on our historic successes and achievements. We have to be so much more politically aware and be able to shape, direct and influence at many levels – from politicians and parliament to walkers and cyclists on the towpath, from the Charity Commissioners to canal enthusiasts. We need to set a strategic plan for the Association to ensure that we will still be the active and proactive national charity dedicated to conserving, maintaining and restoring Britain’s network of canal and river waterways that our members expect us to be and which the inland waterways need us to be if we are to ensure that they are kept alive.  

How do you manage two volunteer roles?

I have to admit that at times I struggled when I was in full time work. However, my volunteering roles gave me a different window on the world, enabled me to challenge myself, to learn new things, to meet new people. I can only do as much as I can do and that is understood by everybody within IWA. We are all in the same position these days at trying to juggle many roles and responsibilities. It doesn’t seem hard work though when you’re with interesting people, who have a shared, passion and who enjoy what they do. The sense of purpose, our successes and achievements, the laughter and the friendship make it all worthwhile. It’s so much more rewarding than staying at home and watching Saturday night TV!

You have spent time as a volunteer cook on Waterway Recovery Group Canal Camps. What attracted you to this role?

I’m not really sure that I was attracted to the role! I think my brother was running a camp and needed a cook. I wasn’t doing much that weekend and that’s how it started! When I look at what the WRG cooks produce these days and the amount of home baking that is supplied on Camps, the cooks are so much more adventurous than I was! I seem to remember grating a lot of cheese and probably mashing a lot of potatoes in a village hall. The lovely thing about being a Camp cook is, even though you have to get up earlier than everybody else to get breakfast on the go, you still feel part of the team and everybody appreciates what you do.

You have been involved in the waterways from an early age. Do you feel that this encouraged a life long interest in waterways?

"Mum and dad’s passion and interest was (and still is) obviously infectious. "

Our involvement in the waterways has been as a family and continues to be as one. The fact that it is full of happy memories, much laughter and fun makes all the difference. Mum and dad’s passion and interest was (and still is) obviously infectious. It’s interesting to see that it has been passed down to the next generation too. Yes, we were introduced to the canals at an early age but the life long interest has been maintained because of the people we meet and the friendships we have made, the opportunities that have come our way and the enjoyment that we continue to get.

What has been your proudest moment as an IWA volunteer?

Proudest moment? – that’s a difficult one! There are so many! Being able to go to Buckingham Palace when mum was awarded her OBE for services to the voluntary sector was pretty special. But then so was that sense of achievement of finally getting that rusty shopping trolley out of the bottom of the canal in Blackburn, waist high in mud and looking decidedly glamorous!! Watching the sense of pride and achievement on a child’s face when they’ve finally completed their WOW passport is always a great moment. So too, is being able to cruise along some of the canals here in the North West knowing that without the years of volunteer support, hard work and dedication they would never have been restored.

What would you say to someone considering volunteering with IWA?

Go for it! There are so many different volunteering roles within the Association that there is bound to be something that will suit your skills, the time you have to offer and the interests you have.

Thank you to Gillian for this interview. If Gillian's expereinces have inspired you to get involved take a look at our many volunteer opportunities to find one that suits you.

Tags: Volunteer of the Month