Working with children in the charity sector, both in a paid and in a voluntary capacity, “impact achieved” and how to measure it is key in any intervention, aid or support. Previously, I was on the committee for a national UK registered charity, which took the decision to close a Belarusian orphanage project with a 10+ year history due to the inability to see or measure significant sustainable impact.
An immeasurable benefit
Of course, measuring impact is essential for any charity to be held accountable for its work and for that to be demonstrated to commissioners, trustees, and donors, as well as the public and other stakeholders. In this case, the overarching aims of the charity were considered against the project outcomes to assess the project, which was then closed due to its perceived unsustainability.
Since this project closed, I continue to volunteer regularly in the same orphanage for disabled children and young people, with an Irish charity. While it did not fit the aims and values of the charity above, I believe that the immeasurable act of providing entertainment, activities and friendship to vulnerable children, who would experience it otherwise, has its own standalone importance.
Behind the headlines
Beyond headline impact on health, education and poverty statistics, positive activities can support smaller – yet nonetheless significant – improvements in outcomes for children and young people. The value in providing activities such as these is that they can promote social and emotional wellbeing.
Volunteers providing activities and entertainment contribute to improvements in soft outcomes, which are harder to measure, such as social inclusion and emotional health and wellbeing. Games encourage interaction between groups of children, including sharing and playing in teams. Similarly arts and crafts give the opportunity of creating something together. Even unstructured activities like putting on a disco will encourage young people to socialise as they dance and enjoy themselves.
Building confidence and resilience
Opportunities to make friends, and in doing so develop peer networks, are an asset for any vulnerable child, young person, or adult. While a further outcome of enjoying activities together and making friends is that young people build confidence and resilience.
Specific groups benefit especially from provision designed to be inclusive and accessible by gaining an experience they wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to enjoy, e.g. children with special educational needs or disabilities. For example, for a young man paralysed from his waist down and restricted to a third floor apartment, trips to the cinema or eating out with other young men in similar circumstances combine fun activities with the opportunity to meet people. These trips can be facilitated by orphanage volunteers’ outreach work in the community and, in this case, he has maintained friendships through phone and online communication. Consequently his network has grown beyond that of the apartment walls.
A catalyst for change
While I think providing activities and friendship for vulnerable children and young people is justification enough for doing so, there is an additional hope that providing positive activities for disabled children and young people is a (slow) catalyst for change. Changing the prevailing views towards disability and influencing practice in care settings are by-products of trips in the community and games and activities in orphanage settings.
In the past six years, there have been small changes in views and practice in the orphanage that I volunteer in. A highlight this year in Belarus was putting on a party with games, music, dancing and face-painting for over 80 children in the orphanage. All the children were hyped up and excited by the fun, the physical activity and the change in routine. The carers took part and enjoyed themselves too; playing the roles of DJ, referee and compère. Surely this is an indicator that prevailing views of children in institutions are changing – historically, many ‘carers’ just weren’t that ‘caring’ in my experience.
I don’t intend to stop visiting, playing games with, and putting on activities for the children. I am content to look for the small impact over time and, while it might not be easily measured, bringing a bit of fun to otherwise limited lives is worthwhile to me.
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