Big Lottery Volunteer Reader Scheme (Merseyside)

Big Lottery Volunteer Reader Scheme (Merseyside)
Big Lottery Volunteer Reader Scheme (Merseyside)

The Reader works collaboratively with CRILS  - The Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society at Liverpool University. Both organisations exist to bring reading into closer relation with health and wellbeing and this practice example is to be read alongside the CRILS submission to the APPG.

Aims and Objectives:

1. To model a volunteer-based project capable of bringing about transformative change for volunteers who were unemployed and/or experiencing mental health problems.

2. To improve the quality of life and the cognitive ability of elderly people and those living with dementia, through the medium of shared reading – connecting people to literature and to each other, thereby reducing isolation.
Funding Sources:

The Big Lottery Reaching Communities Fund

Timescale and Delivery Dates:

5 years - August 2011 to July 2016


242 volunteers recruited, trained and supported to deliver shared reading to older people, resulting in over 31,000 beneficiary experiences.

Location and setting:

Across Merseyside in 35 care home/day care settings per week and also fifteen 1-to-1 settings per week with older people in their own homes.

Description of the arts activity

Great literature is at the heart of what we do. Our unique model is called Shared Reading: a story or poem is read aloud and we pause and discuss what we’ve read, how we may feel about it, what we can learn from it and how it might relate to our own lives.

Reading together is a live  experience which allows participants (including the reader-volunteers) to find their voice and express themselves – something particularly needed in care home and/or dementia settings – improving cognitive skills and re-evoking memories.

It is well known amongst health and social care professionals that the act of volunteering can be beneficial for peoples’ wellbeing and mental health: we recruited people as volunteers who were in need of creative interventions for mental health issues and/or social isolation.

[unemployed/mentally ill volunteers read to elderly care home residents with dementia, for the intended benefit of both parties]

Details of the project participants

Target population:
Beneficiaries = elderly populations and/or those living with dementia.
Volunteers = hard-to-reach populations who had previously not considered themselves as eligible/suitable for volunteering – often living with mental health issues.
Staff = staff and management of the settings also report enhanced job-satisfaction and improved relationships and empathy with their clients/residents.

Method of recruitment:

Volunteers were recruited from existing reading groups, CVS, The Reader website and blog and were referred via support agencies they were already involved with.

The programme trained volunteers either to:

  • Become Reading Leaders, working in pairs to lead groups in care homes/day centres.
  • Become a Reading Friend to read one to one with people isolated within their own homes.
  • Become an administrative assistant to help provide support and resources to the reading volunteers (in general these volunteers were felt to be very vulnerable adults).

As the reputation of the programme developed, referrals from other agencies - disability support, community/local agencies - became important too.

Project management

The Volunteer Team consisted of one Project Manager and two co-ordinators, responsible for managing approximately 120 ‘live’ volunteers and also those in the process of applying, being trained, being placed etc.

Quality assurance:
- Visiting the volunteer-led group and doing a shared reflection session with the volunteer.
- Providing a rich bank of suitable resources that the volunteers could regularly access.
- Ongoing support meetings for the volunteers every 6 weeks.
- Quarterly social gatherings building the volunteer community.

Costs to participants:

Ethics and consent:
No formal ethics process. All volunteers were CRB checked and had appropriate safeguarding training. All evaluation data was used after consent was given.

Evaluation methods and findings

Evaluation methods:

Four end-of-year reports and one final report were submitted to the Big Lottery Fund. Quantitative data was collected via The Reader evaluation forms, however, the evaluation of the scheme has concentrated on the qualitative outcomes.
In total, the researcher carried out interviews with 19 volunteers, 16 group members at five different homes, staff members of six care homes and five Reader staff. Six focus groups for volunteers were also run.

For volunteers:

- 84% of our volunteers have chosen to continue volunteering, testifying to a very positive experience.
- 76% of the population agreed with the outcome ‘I am more interested in doing a course or training of some kind’.
- 79% agreed ‘I have made friends’
 When interviewed, the most commonly quoted impacts relate to:
• gaining employment;
• improving health;
• personal development;
• giving purpose; and
• improving wellbeing.

For beneficiaries:
- 87.2% of staff agreed that ‘The resident’s mood is improved’.
- 76.6% of beneficiaries agreed they had a ‘Greater sense of wellbeing’
The effects most commonly identified by the beneficiaries and care home staff are:

• improving mental health, especially by improving memory and cognitive skills;
• improving quality of life, especially through improving wellbeing; and encouraging inclusion.
These results come as no surprise to The Reader - the success of shared reading aloud in stimulating improvements in memory and cognitive skills for people with dementia has been documented by our research partner CRILS .


I was amazed, it was brilliant how the residents interacted and how they enjoyed the reading and the group. It brings out the humanity and it adds so much to their week.
Kamini – manager of Gerald House Care Home, Birkenhead.

The journey I’ve been on with The Reader from start to finish has been amazing – it’s given me hope.  
Fred – ex-addict and now Reader Leader at Gerald House Care Home, Birkenhead.
This volunteer project (and others) has changed our idea of what The Reader is and what it will become. The role of volunteers is now seen as being integral to the delivery of the organisation’s mission and we have recognized the enormous power a volunteer base offers to our key aim of making Shared Reading part of the fabric of life.

With this in mind, The Volunteer Team has constantly tested and adjusted the processes for recruiting, training, placing and supporting volunteers during the five years it has been running.

The development of a theory of change for volunteers based on the findings of the evaluation is a major step forward and will help The Reader in its development of a new business model that gives considerable importance to the role of volunteers.

Supported using public funding by the Arts Council England