Nursing studies

How nursing students can benefit from volunteering

Alex Richardson’s befriending scheme for older people improved his leadership and communication skills

Alex Richardsons befriending scheme for older people improved his leadership, communication and referral skills

When I started a befriending scheme at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had no idea how much the project would take off and how many older people would benefit from it.

What began as a weekly telephone service for a small group of older adults has become a county-wide initiative, involving 25 healthcare student volunteers and more than 300 older people in Kent.

Lockdown left many older people feeling lonely and isolated

The project was set up to help tackle the social isolation experienced by older people as

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Alex Richardson’s befriending scheme for older people improved his leadership, communication and referral skills

Alex Richardson created the befriending scheme Keep Talking Services in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic

When I started a befriending scheme at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had no idea how much the project would take off and how many older people would benefit from it.

What began as a weekly telephone service for a small group of older adults has become a county-wide initiative, involving 25 healthcare student volunteers and more than 300 older people in Kent.

Lockdown left many older people feeling lonely and isolated

The project was set up to help tackle the social isolation experienced by older people as a result of the pandemic. My mum owns a gardening business and many of her clients are older people – a group that was among the hardest hit by the lack of contact with others.

That weekly visit from a grandchild or monthly outing with friends became a distant memory during lockdown, and many of my mum’s clients were not coping well. She was receiving ten to 15 phone calls a day from people who were struggling to cope alone and had lost hope.

Many just wanted someone to talk to, so after exploring the idea of a telephone service for those in need of some human contact, I decided on a weekly phone call project and in March 2020, Keep Talking Services was born.

I got several of my fellow mental health nursing students on board, took referrals from my mum and paired them with the students for their weekly call. By June, we were supporting 60 older people.

A great response from the local community – and from other students

As word of the scheme began to spread, students studying midwifery, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and other areas of nursing expressed an interest in getting involved, and we are now working with our local council, two charities and a residential setting for adults with mental health needs.

‘This project has taught me so much that I can take forward in my nursing career. I have learned a huge amount about leadership and management, improved my organisational and communication skills, and become more creative in my thinking’

Alex Richardson, nursing student and founder of Keep Talking Services

To let people across Kent know about Keep Talking Services, I approached everyone I could think of, making phone calls and sending emails to charities, businesses and care settings.

Many didn’t reply, but I didn’t let that deter me, and the overwhelming response I got from Red Zebra Community Solutions made all the effort worthwhile.

The charity, which works with voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations, offered me the opportunity to shadow their manager, listened to my ideas and provided bespoke training packages at a reduced price.

They also put me in touch with the local social prescribing lead, who is keen to use the scheme and work with us to educate our student volunteers about the values of social prescribing.

Kent County Council heard about the service through Red Zebra, and we also approached social care charity Choice Support because one of our student volunteers had a relative who worked there.

Care home staff report ‘vast improvements’ in residents on the scheme

We are now supporting a care home through our link with Choice Support, taking referrals and working with staff at the home to ensure safeguarding of the residents as well as our volunteers. I am in regular talks with the staff, who say they are seeing a vast improvement in the well-being of their residents.

Weekly phone calls helped older people feel less alone. Picture: iStock

We needed to find a symbol to represent the service, so I paid to have a professional logo made. I approached a company that offered me a package worth £260 for £80 as they said they loved the idea and wanted to help.

This project has taught me so much that I can take forward in my nursing career. I have learned a huge amount about leadership and management, improved my organisational and communication skills, and become more creative in my thinking.

I now have experience of accepting and screening referrals, and drafting policies and procedures, including a confidentiality agreement and escalation process for student volunteers who may have concerns about the older person they are talking to.

Presenting the project to other students at my university has also boosted my confidence and helped develop my presentation skills, and I have learned the importance of maintaining eye contact, knowing what to do with your hands and ensuring you keep everyone engaged.

I am also in talks to develop my own website, which will provide a platform for our students and the older people we support, and I will hopefully give more talks at the University of Kent and the University of Greenwich to try to recruit more student volunteers.

Plans for the future as the scheme continues to thrive

Red Zebra is supporting me to set up the scheme as a registered charity, which I hope to do by the end of the year, and we are also hoping to attend over-65s clubs to let people know about our project and the ways we can help combat social isolation.

We are planning a bake sale with our current clients, which will enable our students to meet their callers face-to-face in a safe environment when COVID restrictions allow.

If somebody had told me a year ago how big the Keep Talking Services scheme would become, I wouldn’t have believed them. But this has shown me just what can be achieved through dedication and hard work, and it has highlighted the benefits of volunteering for all involved.

What volunteering can do for nursing students

  • Improves your nursing skills. Through my project I have developed leadership and management skills, and improved my communication and organisational skills. My confidence has also been boosted by presenting my project to other students, as well as charities, businesses and the healthcare sector. I have also learned a lot more about issues such as safeguarding.
  • Promotes multidisciplinary teamwork. The Keep Talking Service started out with student volunteers from the mental health nursing field. As the project grew, allied health professional students and those from other areas of nursing have got involved. This is a great way to learn from each other and share ideas about the different areas of practice.
  • Helps when applying for jobs. Having voluntary work on your CV can set you apart from other job applicants. It shows you are passionate about making a difference and it makes you stand out if there are many applicants for a role.
  • Teaches you to be brave and not give up. I approached several organisations before being successful in linking up with Red Zebra. Although it was challenging, I persevered and the project really took off. I also learned that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. I have secured more than £2,000 in funds just by having conversations with the right people.
  • Improves your compassion. Just one hour of your time a week can make a huge difference to someone’s life. Hearing about the difference you have made is truly humbling; there is no greater reward than this.
  • Opens doors. Through the Keep Talking Services project, we now have contacts with organisations including charities and businesses, with Red Zebra offering access to free training that we would otherwise have had to pay a lot of money for.


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