Marc O’Shea | Account Director

As I sit outside St John’s Centre in Old Trafford, reviewing the guidance notes provided – for one last time – I wonder what the day holds for me. It is five minutes before I am scheduled to begin, and there is only one way to find out…

While the reception staff deal with another member of the community, I look at the notice board inside – there are many activities taking place, a bike ride for Palestine catches my attention. Looking around a bit further, I find a full bookcase from which people can donate, swap, borrow or even keep books. The community member bids her farewell, and I proceed to introduce myself to the reception staff.

I am greeted by a warm smile from the team and a woman gets up to hand me a volunteering badge, after introducing herself as Elaine. As I help to arrange the tables and chairs, I am asked to suggest this week’s question, to be answered when participants complete the register. On the board, I write: ‘What is your favourite advert?’ – paying extra special care to my spelling – I am in an English-speaking class, after all.

I also find out Elaine has been working at St John’s Centre for 8 years, in 12 different roles – her internal moves have primarily been due to budgets and funding decisions. She is passionate about the work she does, and throughout the day I discover that Elaine has developed some lifelong friendships through working in the community.

Just as we finish setting up the first woman arrives, Edlira from Albania. After settling her son into the day-care service provided by the centre, she gestures that she does not understand the word ‘advert’. Eventually, I resort to downloading the Google Translate app, to help explain the concept.

Moslem is next to arrive. He has only been in the UK for 4 weeks, after successfully seeking asylum from Iran. Later, Elaine tells me that Moslem currently lives on less than £4 per day. He writes his name and ‘about football’, immediately under the question on the board.

Over the next 20 minutes Saira, Maryem, Zahra, Mawata, Saima and Fatima all gradually join the class. Favourite adverts on the board now include: iPhone, kids’ holidays, cosmetics and Specsavers. Later, Saima confesses to me that her actual favourite advert is a Berocca chameleon advert, where the animal dances to Punjabi MC playing Bhangra music – I find it online, and it’s hilarious.

The English lesson itself involves practicing speaking in small groups using flashcard topics, chosen at random. There is a wide range of ability amongst the group, as we speak about the weather, family and food. I observe some of the better English-speaking women talking together in their native language, which seems strange.

We break for lunch, which is an assortment of home-cooked dishes, made by the participants. We share a selection of samosas, kebabs, chicken drumsticks, chips and a variety of savoury and sweet snacks. Delicious. I even learn how to find a rabbit inside every peanut!

After eating, we discuss the future of the class. It turns out I have been helping with the final lesson before the summer break – many of the learners are parents, who would find it impossible to attend and balance childcare. Some of the participants find out they will be moving onto a more advanced class, in the Autumn. I also learn the community centre has some summer activities planned, including a camping trip. Elaine tells the learners that they can use the centre for informal meetups throughout the summer, if they would like to practice. During this period of collective reflection and planning, I ask if the classes ever involve written English lessons, and suggest doing more role play scenarios to replicate real life interactions in public.

Some of the participants then stayed to help tidy up, after the class. During this time, I spoke to Fatima, who is a Sri Lankan Muslim woman. She shares some truly harrowing stories from speaking with her compatriots, who were treated as second-class citizens, in Kuwait after the Gulf war.

I asked her about the women speaking privately in their own language, during the class earlier. Surprisingly, I learned that these lessons were one of the few opportunities these young women get to leave their homes and socialise in public. I cannot imagine being in a foreign country, without many family or friends and being unable to speak the local language or find work – bringing the service provided by St John’s Centre into perspective.

Originally, I thought my day of volunteering would be more intimidating and less fulfilling – I was wrong. I learnt far more than I taught, and am grateful for the opportunity to contribute a little to some of the most overlooked members of our community. Nobody has a perfect life – and living in peace is a privilege, which shouldn’t be taken for granted.

I have invited Moslem to join us for a football game, and hope to see him on the pitch soon.

As part of Benefacto’s Manchester launch campaign, #VolunteerBuzz, MediaCom Manchester have pledged to send out 25 employee volunteers over the next ten weeks. We will be regularly posting about our experiences here on the blog. To find out more about Benefacto and how you can get involved, click here.