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Volunteering during a pandemic

Katie Pilcher manages the volunteers at COAM and she has written a blog post to tell us about her experiences supporting our cohort of volunteers during the Coronavirus pandemic this year….

It has been a very different year for us all at COAM, especially our volunteers. They give us so much of their time and many have done so for years. Rewind back to March, when we had to tell our amazing team that they were not able to volunteer in the way they had grown to love, it was really difficult. For so many, COAM is its own community and a lot of our volunteers really do move their lives around their volunteer duties at the Museum.

Volunteer feeding sheep
Lockdown 1.0 came into play right at the beginning of our lambing season – a time of year when volunteers are hugely involved in supporting our Farm Team. Lambing 2020 definitely meant a lot to us, not only because it was our first season in 20 years where we hadn’t lost any lambs but because it became a lifeline. Some of our volunteers live in small apartments and some live on their own so being able to help keep all our new arrivals alive was important at a time where we were all relishing our one dose of exercise a day. Our Communications Team kept our entire team of volunteers updated with all our lambing news and was often asked to send more videos or photographs for them to forward onto family to lift spirits.

When we all received the good news that we could open to the public, we all breathed a sigh of relief. It had been very quiet at the Museum in the months leading up to June so being able to let our volunteers come back on site and provide them with a safe escape was blissful.

Volunteer drilling at Chiltern Open Air Museum

The question I often get asked is, ‘why do people choose to volunteer with your organisation?’. In previous years, I’d often say ‘‘they want to fill their spare time’, ‘they want to support a good cause’ or ‘they want to meet new people’. 2020 has altered me being able to answer that so easily. I’ve asked most people I’ve supported this year why they continue to volunteer with us and no two reasons are the same. Lots of people have been put on furlough, have more time, lots have debated volunteering with us and decided now was the time to get involved. Some people needed a break from reality or wanted to do something valuable with their time and others needed structure or routine to their week. COAM certainly fills a hole that people needed filled.

We have been incredibly lucky to gain an insane amount of new volunteer support this year but not only that, volunteers who haven’t been involved for a number of years have started back up again. Is this because of the pandemic? Probably, but I know many of our team are keen to continue volunteering with us even when we get back to some sense of normality.

Volunteer taking down Christmas decorations at Chiltern Open Air Museum

I wanted to let the spotlight shine on our volunteers and let them tell you what it has been like to volunteer during the coronavirus pandemic and how they feel about volunteering at COAM.

Addalyn:

“When I first visited COAM I noticed the volunteer sign on the wall and knew immediately that I wanted to come back and be a part of what they were doing. To me, there is almost nothing better than walking around the empty museum in the morning doing animal chores. Even when it’s raining or cold, COAM feels like home and the people there feel like family.”

Wendy:

“I often took my children here years ago; they loved it, and now my son will be getting married in Skippings Barn. So I was delighted to hear that COAM was looking for volunteers. Although I’ve only recently started, I already feel at home. Everyone has been helpful, friendly and above all incredibly knowledgeable. I enjoy helping with the Astleham garden; sometimes I do the ticket office, stewarding and on one occasion assisted with archery (unfortunately just to disinfect the arrows!) It’s a very rewarding place. There’s always so much going on, yet it’s peaceful as well, and there’s a great sense of community. Most of all, it’s good to feel that you are part of something special.”

Donielle:

“I enjoy volunteering at COAM because I get to be outdoors and with the animals. In addition, it is inspiring to be a part of their mission. I think what COAM is doing is important and helps modern visitors to understand how people lived and worked in the past. It is a physical representation of the past which is often hard for people to imagine.”

Volunteer folk singers at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Andrew:

“My wife was looking at COAM via Facebook and saw an advert for costumed volunteers. “You’d love that” she said, knowing that I was into Amateur Dramatics and liked dressing up! So I emailed Katie and she invited me over. She described the project which had some funding and was to be properly launched next year. The costumed volunteer will take a building and be dressed in clothes appropriate to the building and the time period answering questions and giving an additional insight into our assets.

So the first week, to see whether I liked it, I took the 1940s pre-fab and was in my own clothes. Having studied the background notes to the building I was all ready to impart my vast knowledge to the public! Well, rather than doing this, I learnt so much from those who visited the building. One man had spent his childhood up to aged 11 in one, another told me all about heating with back boilers and another man was an expert on asbestos. The different grades, how dangerous, how to dispose of it, etc. I felt slightly overawed that I had learnt much more than I had imparted.

Week 2 came and Katie found me a 1940s great coat and some trousers which was brilliant as frankly it was quite cold. This week armed with my knowledge and what I had learnt from visitors in week 1, I was away. Visitors love the house and there is so much inside which reminds them of their childhood or of their grandparents’ household items. The children are a joy and ask the most unexpected questions.

Week 3 the Henton Mission Room and back to learning. I am obviously a newbie but loving it and talking to the wonderful visitors that we attract here. Here’s hoping that more costumes will be created for next year and if you see an elderly vicar walking round the site next Spring, it might be me!”

Paula:

“I don’t know exactly what I expected when I first volunteered to help at COAM: something to give a little bit of structure to my week, maybe; a chance to socialise more after weeks of lockdown; a way to support a valued local institution that was feeling the effects of coronavirus. Well, I got all of these but so much more.
Initially, I offered to steward and spent time in the Toll House and in Leagrave Cottages. The first thing I noticed was the warm welcome from existing staff members and volunteers. In those first few sessions, so many people came to introduce themselves, have a chat and offer help. Quickly, I felt part of the family.

Then there was the pleasure of chatting to the visitors, sharing my ever-increasing knowledge and hearing their recollections and stories. I had wonderful questions from children, such as ‘Really, no wi-fi?’ and ‘How did people manage with no movies? Did they make their own?’ One child, on seeing the besom broom in the Toll House, asked if I was a witch! I met so many interesting people: two lovely ladies in Finnish national costume, a Scottish organic farmer who had come ‘down south’ for some work as a film extra and two lovely (but scary!) architectural conservationists who knew much more about the building I was standing in than I did!

But the over-riding benefit is the store of memories that will keep me going over the winter. I will remember families picnicking and playing on the Village Green, relaxed and safe from the virus; standing by the Snack Barn on Wild about Wool Sunday, enjoying the autumn sun on the changing leaves and watching smoke curling out of the chimneys of Leagrave and the Forge; the fragrance of the roses outside Astleham Manor cottage; the goats standing in a line on the fallen tree-trunk. Most of all, though, I will remember walking up the lane from the Toll House at the end of the day, picking blackberries from the hedgerows. It could have been a country lane a hundred years ago. How peaceful!

Then, something new. I started helping on the Accompanied Walks programme where we offered a walk round the museum and tea and cake to people who were feeling particularly isolated as a result of the virus. I was anxious at first that I may not know enough about all the buildings but I found visitors didn’t want a lot of information. They enjoyed just a gentle stroll and a chat about anything that caught their eye. Peeking through the windows of the prefab was always good fun and we enjoyed discussing things like the wonderful onions grown in the allotment. Each walk seemed to follow the same route but it was never boring. With new people each time, every conversation was different and every experience delightful. I was sorry when the programme came to an end. I’m sure the visitors all enjoyed it and I certainly did. Let’s hope it happens again.

What a great few months. Here’s to next year!”

Over the last few weeks of 2020, I’ve been told time and time again by our volunteers ‘I feel like I am part of a huge family’… feedback doesn’t get much better than that.

It has not been easy – for anyone. The one thing that has certainly helped me and my colleagues with every challenge put in front of us, is seeing how important our Museum is to our volunteers and how it has helped them all get through one of the hardest years they’ve known. No-one can be sure how coronavirus will affect us in 2021 but we’ll certainly have an army of ever-growing volunteer support behind us.

If you’re interested in getting involved in volunteering in 2021, then please drop me an email at volunteering@coam.org.uk

Katie Pilcher
Volunteering and Communications Officer


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