Fiona, Level 3 Volunteer Advisor, has contributed an impressive 44 years volunteering service for Citizens Advice, at local offices in Ipswich, New Barnet, Hendon, Finchley, Grahame Park and Horsham, where she has been volunteering since 2001.
Before she began volunteering, Fiona was enjoying teaching full-time in a junior school in London, until her husband’s job moved to Ipswich. There, a neighbour who was teacher at the nearby secondary school persuaded Fiona to apply for her job, as she was going elsewhere. Despite enjoying teaching Religious Education to first years, teaching English to secondary education level was not as enjoyable because it was the time of Raising of the School Leaving Age (ROSLA), from 15 to 16. Here, Fiona remembers students she taught being very resentful.
She said: “The fact that if they had been born a few months earlier they could have left and started contributing to the family income, but there they were, trapped in school, being dragged through Macbeth. I must admit I also felt trapped and decided it was not for me either.”
Fiona began volunteering for Citizens Advice in their Ipswich office, finding it the most interesting voluntary work on offer at the Volunteer Bureau. Back then there was only one week’s training and although the information system was very visible in the Ipswich office, it was all on paper and in ring binders, which was painstakingly updated each month.
The Ipswich office was open every weekday and Saturday mornings too but there were no appointments back then. Fiona said: “The problems were much the same as now, relationship breakdown, benefits, child maintenance, consumer, employment, though the options available to the clients seemed far fewer then.”
Back then, case writing for when clients came into the office was done on individual case sheets, which made it easier when clients returned for further help, as their case sheets were stapled and filed together. Today, this is all digitalised.
Over the years, Fiona recalls how training developed. She said: “Training became far more sophisticated, and involved not only learning about changes in benefits or divorce procedures but also about exploring clients’ problems more holistically than dealing just with the presenting problem.”
There were also major advances regarding discrimination of all kinds, beginning with a change in National Association of Citizens Advice Bureau’s (NACAB) policy regarding how the team reacted to racist remarks. Fiona said: “Previously when confronted by someone making racist remarks, one just ignored what had been said, but we now had to challenge such racism, and if it continued, to make it clear that the interview would end.”
Fiona believes that such developments in policy and holistically helping clients are very much at the root of her continuing to volunteer for Citizens Advice. She said: “It becomes far more personal than simply finding the right information to answer a client’s query. Of course, some clients will still be very challenging, but there is a greater chance that one will understand why they are demanding, even if it is beyond anyone’s capabilities to give them exactly what they are demanding.”
For Fiona, there have been many memorable moments over the years, including helping a client many years ago with a double glazing and debt problem, who couldn’t read. He turned out to be a victim of an unscrupulous double-glazing salesman, who made up his commission when he had not made many sales, by selling double glazing to the client, including a plastic front door for £2,500. As a result of Fiona going through all the client’s papers, she found copies of four different loan agreements filled in by the salesman for the client, using vastly inflated income figures to pay for unrealistically expensive double glazing.
Fiona said: “Once I had contacted Trading Standards with the evidence, the salesman was prosecuted and at least two of the loan agreements were written off, and appropriate repayments were negotiated for the double glazing which had been installed.”
Now with 44 years volunteering for Citizens Advice under her belt, at six different local offices, Fiona, now 75, and a highly experienced Level 3 Advisor, has no plans to give up volunteering.
She said: “I have learned a lot about what is really happening to people, as opposed to what one reads in the papers, and I would say to anyone considering volunteering for Citizens Advice in West Sussex that it is very interesting work. The training is excellent and ongoing, and there is always support to enable you to get to grips with the best way to help the clients.”
If you’re interested in volunteering, find out more.