Thousands of blue-coated volunteers make citywide impact

Hull 2017’s blue-coated volunteer army, who continue to welcome visitors with open arms, broad smiles and a contagious spirit no matter what the weather, have grabbed the challenge of being part of the story with both hands and do not seem to be letting go. In fact, they are writing their very own chapter of the city’s epic year as the UK City of Culture 2017.

Since announcing its recruitment drive for thousands of volunteers in March 2016, generously funded by the Big Lottery Fund, Garfield Weston Foundation, Spirit of 2012, Arco and the University of Hull, the volunteering team embarked on an intensive engagement programme to encourage people from all walks of life from across the city and beyond to become a Hull 2017 volunteer. The process has been life affirming with enthusiasm, interest, flexibility and energy offered from so many great people.

Shaun Crummey, Head of Volunteering at Hull UK City of Culture 2017, said: “We had high expectations of what the volunteer programme should be. Tapping into public interest and enthusiasm, the programme has become a vehicle to position people at the forefront of the city’s celebrations. Our volunteers are the engine that’s helping to drive this incredible year.”

Applications reviewed, interviews completed and vetting checks approved, the volunteers then participate in a three-part training programme. The first phase is orientation, covering the essentials of volunteering. Part two is all about culture, with an immersive experience about the arts. The final element is all about Hull, explaining everything a Hull 2017 volunteer needs to know about the city.

There are now 2,500 volunteers who are wearing the unmistakable blue uniform, provided by Major Partner Arco, helping to make sure everyone gets the most out of this incredible year. The blue army, which speaks 60 different languages, has completed 30,000 volunteer shifts totally over 120,000 volunteering hours.

Yet the training does not end once the uniform is collected. The Masterclass Programme is an ongoing suite of optional training, ranging from creative writing and dance to an introduction to Hull’s history archives and heritage.

Shaun added: “We’re really proud of the training programme, we’ve created something unique that is giving people a wealth of skills, knowledge and confidence to not only be an amazing ambassador during this year of culture, but also in the years that follow. The programme is a fantastic platform for volunteers to come together, celebrate your community and embrace those of others, whilst giving something back and improving personal physical and mental health.”

One of the many benefits of being a volunteer is the opportunity to talk to new people about things that are more wide ranging than the weather. Hull 2017 volunteers and those they meet are speaking to people from across the city, the UK and the world who they may never have spoken to had it not been for this extraordinary year. They are talking art, culture and favourite dance move.

Becoming a volunteer offers an insight into things you may never have thought, or considered, you could do. The support network behind the volunteer programme has enabled many of the volunteers to try something completely new, enabling them to feel more involved in the year. From collecting data, being part of the supporting cast in a theatrical performance to learning what goes on behind the scenes of large scale events, the volunteers have ultimately developed a confidence that goes beyond the moment when they are wearing the uniform.

For many, volunteering in this programme has been life changing.

Iris Weatherley, 54, a Hull resident and Hull 2017 volunteer, said: “I hadn’t planned on becoming a volunteer but I got talking to a lady one day last year about her experience as a Hull 2017 volunteer and it sounded really interesting. I decided to put an application in but I didn’t expect to get through. I have dyslexic problems, eczema on my face and really lacked in confidence so I thought all this would hold me back. But I was made to feel really welcome and I got through!

“I ended up being involved in 7 Alleys, the Land of Green Ginger event in East Park. I was completely pushed out of my comfort zone as I’d never done acting or barrier carrying, but it was the best thing I could have done. As I was driving home after the first performance, I was in my car and ‘I am so alive’ by the Goo Goo Dolls came on and that summed up exactly how I was feeling. My experience woke me up and has made me realise there is no such thing as a comfort zone, I can do anything. I’m no longer the quiet person who was unsure of herself, now I’m really confident; I’ve gone from mouse-like to a lioness who wants to roar!”

Volunteering has long been regarded as a good way to reduce the feeling of loneliness and consequential social isolation. Wearing the blue jacket has provided a licence for many to strike up a conversation with strangers, which was previously too daunting or even unthinkable. Now they have the confidence to do this even when they are not wearing the uniform.

With loneliness having been correlated with poor physical and mental health and wellbeing, helping others can really help improve your own mental health, providing the opportunity to engage with others and ultimately make you feel more valued. Hull residents are getting out and about, engaging with others and feeling part of the city’s celebratory year.

Before Iris became a volunteer she did not recognise how bored she felt. Now, she is trying out new cultural activities and events and is not phased by going alone.

Iris said: “When I put the uniform on I really feel part of the family, even though there are so many people I don’t know. If we go to events on our own we end up meeting other volunteers who are doing the same, so get to know new people. It has really helped me and is such an unexpected bonus. I won’t be stopping at the end of the year, it has done too much for me to stop. I don’t know what’s next but I’m just going to throw myself in.”

Shaun Crummey added: “The volunteer programme is great for the city. For those who want to give back to the community, this year has provided a massive opportunity to do so. Importantly, looking beyond 2017, we’re wanting to help to complement existing capacity with new and re-engaged volunteers who are trained to support and empower community projects.”

Debbie Lye, Chief Executive at Spirit of 2012 Trust, who have provided a grant to help fund the volunteer programme, said: “Spirit of 2012 has funded 16,500 volunteers so far through our various projects, so we understand the crucial role that volunteering plays in making things happen. When it is well organised, with care taken to train, reward and recognise people, volunteering also boosts the skills and the wellbeing of both the volunteers themselves and those they support. That’s why we’re particularly pleased that our funding is supporting the Hull 2017 Volunteers, whose pride in their city and enjoyment of the part they are playing is one of the most memorable features of a visit to Hull this year.”

Fran Hegyi, executive director at Hull 2017, said: “The generous support we’ve received from our partners to fund our extraordinary volunteer programme has helped make Hull’s year as the UK City of Culture truly remarkable. The Hull 2017 story is having an impact that will go far beyond 2017. Every one of the thousands of people who have generously given up their time to volunteer truly are part of the story and for this, we thank them wholeheartedly.”

Final applications are currently being considered in readiness for the last training events taking place later this summer.