Helen Gardner - Volunteer of the Month July 2014

Created on 03/07/2014

Photo: Helen Gardner on a Canal Camp at Crick Heath Wharf on the Montgomery Canal

Helen first volunteered with IWA's Waterway Recovery Group (WRG) as part of her Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award in 1992. Since then she has led camps, cooked for camp volunteers, joined WRG's Board of Directors and taken on the role of heading up WRG's Leaders' Training Day. Find out why she has stayed around for over twenty years and just what a WRGie (WRG volunteer) can find themselves doing.

When and how did you first become involved as a volunteer with WRG?

I needed a residential project for my Gold Duke of Edinburgh's award, I spotted a Canal Camps brochure on the notice board in the 6th form common room and booked on. That was 1992.

What was it about your first Canal Camp that made you want to volunteer with WRG again?
It was such good fun, there are many people that I met on that first camp that I’m still friends with now. It was a New Year camp, scrub bashing on the Wilts and Berks; it was great to be in the outdoors, working, playing with fire, away from my parents at a typically dreadful time of year for a teenager! There was never any doubt that I’d go back to another camp.

A lot of what you have done with WRG has been on Canal Camps including taking on the roles of camp cook or leader, what’s your favourite part of volunteering on a camp?
Because I haven’t done very much of it in recent years I really like just turning up and working - I always seem to have some sort of role or responsibility these days. I get a lot of satisfaction out of cooking, I try to arrange it (cut corners) so that I can go on site for a few days during the week as well.  

Leading a Canal Camp involves a lot more than turning up for the week and leading the work. What are you doing behind the scenes in the run up to a camp?
If I’m leading a straightforward camp then typically I’m working with the locals to make sure that I know what the work is and that we’ve got all the bits and pieces we think we'll need, trying to recruit the volunteer skills to match (e.g. digger drivers), producing the paperwork, thinking through a plan of action. As we get nearer the time it’s about making sure the kit will get there, getting a list of possible social activities, checking the cook and assistant are happy and ringing all the volunteers in advance to welcome them. How much there is to do will vary so much – it depends on how involved your assistant wants to be, whether you’re part of a bigger plan of work and can share the load with other leaders, how familiar with the area you are etc.

Of course this year we (as in the board) have brought Amber on board to support Jenny at Head Office so that the two of them can support the leaders. We acknowledge that some leaders find it hard to balance work and real life commitments along with the planning of a Canal Camp – hopefully the Head Office support will go a little way to easing this.

You also help new leaders by running WRG’s Leaders' Training Day, why do you think giving volunteers access to resources and support like that is important?
Our leaders are fantastically hardworking individuals and WRG Canal Camps would not function without them so the more support we can give them the better – anything to help them plan more efficiently, make good decisions on the ground and make them feel appreciated. We all have a common aim for our leaders to run fun, safe camps that achieve things. The Leaders' Training Day is a good day to reflect on how things went, share ideas and see what can be done better.

How does WRG recruit new camp leaders and how do you think this could be developed in the future?
It happens in a number of ways: existing leaders, regular WRGies and the leader recruiting team spot people on camps who are potential leaders and encourage them to assist or come to the Leaders’ Training Day; we have adverts in Navvies and on the website; and people independently approach the leaders recruiting team.

It’s come a long way from when I first led in 1998 – Mike Palmer bought me a drink at the National and persuaded me to assist Dr Steve on the Mont in a couple of week’s time. He then bought Izzy Rutter a drink and also persuaded her to assist Dr Steve on the Mont in a couple of week’s time. So there were three of us and in the end Steve did most of the cooking. So when I think back some things have changed in that we now have so many resources and the Leaders' Training Day so potential leaders can be more informed about what they’re taking responsibility for; and on the other hand beer still plays an important part.

It’s difficult when you’re so close to WRG, you’ve been around a long time and leading isn’t scary any more to empathise with people who are not in that position.  If anyone has any thoughts about what puts potential leaders off leading we’d love to hear about them. Recruiting Amber went from ‘mulling thoughts over a beer or three in November’ through to ‘Amber starting work in May’ so things can change really quite quickly.  Jenny, Mk2 and Bex have done a fantastic job this year – we only have a few gaps – it’s still only June and we’ve added many more camps than last year.  Though it’d be good to have a bigger pool of leaders to share the load.

As well as being involved with various aspects of leading, cooking and preparing for camps you’re also a WRG Director. What are the most challenging aspects of this role?
Challenging? I think it’s balancing my time.  Depending on what you get involved in it can be very easy to spend a lot of time on paperwork / admin / email type stuff and you have to remember to prioritise it so that you can still go out digging.  

What do you normally do in your day job? What new skills have you gained volunteering with WRG that you were unlikely to have a chance to develop in your job?
I’m an IT consultant/freelancer typically working in the financial sector in recent years.  It’s the practical skills that I wouldn’t have got in my day job.   

What do you enjoy most about volunteering with WRG?
The people; it’s not just about the people you meet and work with but fundamentally if the work’s rubbish and the people are great you’ll still come away having enjoyed it.


Thank you to Helen for this interview. If Helen's expereinces have inspired you to get involved, take a look at the Canal Camps running this year. There are also many other ways in which volunteers can get involved.

Tags: Volunteer of the Month