Create supporter talks about her experiences of volunteering

Claire Combes is Head of Risk and Internal Audit at intu Properties plc. She volunteered on Create’s sound:images programme in July 2011, which brought together disabled and non-disabled young people for visual art and music workshops led by Create’s professional artists.

During June and July 2011, Create took sound:images to two schools in the Watford area: Breakspeare school (a local authority school that caters for children with special educational needs) and Parmiter’s School (a co-educational secondary school). Funded by Capital Shopping Centres Group PLC (now Intu Properties plc) and The Harlequin Watford (now intu Watford), sound:images used the theme of “celebrations” to coincide with The Harlequin’s 21st Birthday. Artwork produced by the participants was displayed at The Harlequin’s exhibition centre; and the young people performed two lunchtime concerts of their musical compositions at the shopping centre. Here, Claire talks about her experience of volunteering, why she volunteered, and its benefits: “Alongside the day-to-day activities of my job, I sit on the corporate responsibility committee at intu Properties PLC, and am always aware of any volunteering opportunities that crop up. intu Watford (or The Harlequin as it was then known) is my local centre, so locality was a major factor in choosing to volunteer on sound:images. From a corporate perspective, our remit for supporting causes and providing volunteer support is programmes that support young people, and Create’s programme not only ticked this box, but was something completely different from other opportunities I had heard of before. I was aware of similar disabled children’s projects, but the idea of bringing them together with non-disabled children really struck a chord with me.

I have to admit, before the programme started I was very nervous! I’ve never considered myself any good at art and had nightmares thinking I might ruin something that the children had been working on. Luckily my volunteer role consisted mostly of support: from holding a water pot to washing up. I might have had to help with a paintbrush every now and then and I did stick a few things down, but I was essentially making sure the children were interacting together which they did really well. Unfortunately I only joined on the second day of the two-day visual arts workshop, but it was great seeing the creative process the children went through. The quality of their finished products was amazing – there are a lot of talented young people out there!

Usually when volunteering, I just see the output of projects so this was much more of An altogether rounded project for me. I helped children with coming up with ideas, I supported them in their interactions, and I got really messy! My favourite memory of the project was of a beautifully designed piece by a pupil, which a disabled child suddenly went running up to with a paintbrush in hand, splattering paint through the middle of the canvas. The girl who designed the piece looked horrified, but then took a step back and decided to make it the central feature of the art work. It was really eye-opening to see the interactions with people who wouldn’t normally participate in projects together.

I have three children but they weren’t teenagers at the time, so to work with the children (or more appropriately young adults) was a real eye-opener. When I arrived on the second day, I found that both groups had already formed solid friendships and were keen to work together. They all filled-out a questionnaire at the end of the project and I was delighted to see that they all seemed to have got something out of it; whether it be self-confidence, new creative skills or new friends. To see the participants out of their comfort zones but being able to adjust was really fantastic. I didn’t volunteer on the music part of the project, but I went to the public performance.

Seeing the smiles and joy on the children’s faces when they were performing was just phenomenal – passers-by and I were in tears. To see a disabled child who could hardly move managing to play a percussion instrument really inspired me. I am in no doubt that the project was of great benefit to those who took part. Volunteering on sound:images gave me a great sense of achievement, including being able to push myself with the art and realising that I’m not as bad as I previously thought! Seeing people develop gives me great personal pleasure.

Having done the project, I’m now encouraging others to do the same. Not only does it build your confidence but, from a corporate perspective, it’s an opportunity to give back to the community that we work within. It’s great to come up with ideas in the office, but actually to do something active is much better – to see the results for yourself. I’m very lucky to be in my current position and there are a lot of people who haven’t had them same opportunities I’ve had. Volunteering is my own personal way of giving back.”