Mary Newman (MBE)Chair, VCS Cymru
"Being involved with VCS completely changed the course of my life."
Stuart AshleyVolunteer, 1977-1989
"In my opinion, if it wasn't for VCS we wouldn't have the Welsh Assembly! It helped make me more employable, and got me into 30 years of campaigning and voluntary work - it was a great apprenticeship."
This is the story of a Cardiff institution, and how it has pioneered, survived, changed with the times, and evolved into the VCS Cymru we know today.
Inspired by the ‘Work Camps’ of the post-war ‘Peace Corps’, VCS came into being following a hugely successful summer activity programme for children in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay during the summer of 1964 run by a group of enthusiastic volunteers based in the original Butetown Community Hall.
It was officially established later that same year as the “Voluntary Community Service” at a public meeting at the Temple of Peace and Health in Cathays Park.
VCS’s founder, Robert Davies, was himself inspired by Alec Dickson who had started Community Service Volunteers in London.
From starting the UK’s first Volunteer Bureau to running the only community radio station in Cardiff, VCS is one of the City’s enduring success stories.
In 1966 VCS ensured its independence at the first annual conference of the year with Cabinet Minister (and later Speaker of the House of Commons) George Thomas becoming the honorary president. During that time, local and international volunteers started organizing workcamps and summer playschemes, while a donation of £100 was made by the Cardiff Education Committee. In the August of 1966 VCS – along with The Family Welfare Association – devised a project called Family Service Workcamp, which concentrated on helping families in need.
With the annual volunteer numbers increasing to 600 and grants being made by the King George VI Trust and Cardiff City Council, VCS was granted charitable status in 1967 and was registered in the Department of Education and Science.
In 1968 it had evolved into a fully-fledged ‘job-shop’, the first volunteer bureau in the UK.
At the end of the 1960s, VCS employed its’ first member of paid staff.
With the beginning of the new decade, VCS developed an adventure playground in a park in Grangetown called The Marl, a project that involved 800 young volunteers, and was the first playground of its kind in Wales.
In 1972, VCS was the subject of a documentary called ‘A Place To Play‘ (above) which recorded typical days in the Butetown, Splott and Ely summer adventure playgrounds.
Volunteers also started visiting hospitals and prisons to offer support, and with the increasing range of activities, VCS started to attract older people as well as younger citizens.
As the fuel crisis of 1973 began to grow, VCS worked in liaison with local authorities to set up a network for collection and distribution of fuel for those in need. To solve the fuel crisis problem, 2000 volunteers were mobilised while 60% of the city was covered by street wardens. Volunteers bagged and distributed coal and wood to 25 storage centres and also managed to clean the River Taff.
In 1974, the first issue of VCS Community Directory was produced and distributed.
As drought hit Cardiff in 1976, VCS co-ordinated emergency schemes for Volunteer Water Wardens, while also running a project aimed at developing community services and social education in Cardiff’s schools.
In 1977 VCS won the Prince of Wales Award and during that year volunteers start organizing Christmas parties for local children. A year later, a lack of volunteers caused a crisis in VCS, forcing it to decrease its activities, although crucial projects like summer work camps remained operational. The decade ended with the launch of Cardiff Playbus and its first involvement with summer play schemes in 1979. The legacy of the Cardiff Playbus continues to this day.
VCS volunteers were instrumental in helping the big clear-up in the Canton, Riverside and Grangetown areas of the city following the great floods of winter 1979-80. Volunteers worked closely with organisations like South Riverside Community Centre and WRVS to provide help to older people in the city, making it a busy turn of the decade.
The start of the eighties saw volunteer numbers double following daily broadcasts of VCS volunteering opportunities on Cardiff Broadcasting (CBC) the local radio station which later went on to become Red Dragon FM. In the same year widespread floods brought plenty of work for volunteers in helping those made homeless. Donated clothes stored and distributed. Transport provided. Redecoration work followed. During that summer a workcamp in Snowdonia was run for girls from Butetown.
In 1981 VCS continued to diversify into new areas . A theatre group for unemployed people was developed as was an industrial workcamp for students from Denmark.
1982 was an even busier year, VCS set up Cardiff Single Women’s Homelessness Group which later grew into Llamau. Five editions of the magazine ‘Voice’ were published that year, produced by volunteers. The Grangetown Community Project was handed over to the community after nine years of VCS management. Gardening projects were expanded after grants enabled tools and a van to be purchased. 150 requests for work were undertaken by a good team of volunteers.
Local and international workcamp volunteers were placed at Cardiff City Farm, Grangetown in 1984, building an Adventure Playground and carrying out gardening projects. It was an end of an era too, as that year saw the last summer workcamp hosted by VCS.
Hard times were to follow as the 80’s recession took hold in Cardiff. 1985 was a sad year as serious underfunding resulted in the loss staff and the gardening and decorating work had to be abandoned, and the Volunteer Job Shop was scaled down, but the partnership work with the national Community Service Volunteers continued with the production of a video on being in care and CSV’s also helped the job shop to keep running, if only on a much reduced basis.
But in 1986, VCS faced a crisis. Long term staff illness caused bureau to close for a while, but the commitment of volunteers kept things ticking over until the following year when the Bureau re-opened with two workers on job share. A part-time fund raiser was also employed to help generate income.
VCS celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1989 with a special meeting at The Temple of Peace, and Honorary President George Thomas – by now Lord Tonypandy – paid a visit to the office as the service again evolved by winning a two year contract for the Manpower Services Commission’s Communities Opportunities Project – known as COPS.
In 1990 VCS moved to new offices at 109 St Mary Street, and won its first contract with South Glamorgan Adolescent Division to recruit and train volunteers to work with young offenders.
By 1991 VCS’s Volunteer Job Shop had become part of the fabric of the City and extra staff were employed to cope with volume of volunteers.
And by 1992 the number of volunteers placed by VCS were averaging 90 each month, and the number of opportunities available in Cardiff & the Vale of Glamorgan (which were together as South Glamorgan at the time) had grown to almost 300. That year the VCS booklet “Working With Volunteers – a guide for volunteer organisers” was published.
The contracts with South Glamorgan Adolescent Division come to an end after three years in 1993, but VCS was soon negotiating a new ex-offenders scheme with the Probation Service.
The VCS Probation project was short lived and it ended it after only six months when the Probation Service was reorganised, but the Volunteer Job Shop continued to flourish and in October 1994 VCS held a special event to celebrate 30 years of community action.
Changes to Local Government in the mid 90’s signalled the end of VCS’s remit to cover both the City of Cardiff and The Vale of Glamorgan, and consultations began in the Vale to develop their own Volunteer Bureau, in 1995 VCS staff ran consultation events across the Vale from a caravan.
The County of South Glamorgan was abolished in 1996, and VCS’s Vale of Glamorgan operation became an independent entity in itself as the Vale Volunteer Bureau – VVB – with its own base in Barry Town Centre, while back in Cardiff VCS reshaped as the Volunteer Centre for the City.
At the turn of the new millennium VCS started a drop-in centre at the Cardiff Central Library in the centre of town. It proved a popular move as the office at 109 St Mary Street was up 3 flights of stairs and was not accessible.
Through the early part of the new decade, VCS concentrated on its core activity of matching potential volunteers to an ever growing number of organisations needing help
In 2007 VCS became the Cardiff administrator of GwirVol – a partnership of people and organisations set up to promote and support youth volunteering in Wales, a function that continues to this day. Through GwirVol, youth volunteering grants are made available for organisations that can improve access and opportunities in volunteering for young people aged 14-25.
The Cardiff Volunteer Co-ordinators network started in 2008 as collaboration with Voluntary Action Cardiff and brought together volunteer involving organisations in the City four times a year to share good practice and share information.
Funded by Cardiff City Council, the CVCN quickly established itself as a highly effective means of developing the capacity and ability of organisations to maximise the experience of volunteering.
In 2009, VCS pioneered a new service through The Engagement Gateway, helping local organisations to deliver programmes that built the skills, confidence and knowledge of target groups and linked people’s progress to a ‘next step’ such as volunteering, training, referral to a mainstream project, supported employment or full employment.
In 2011, VCS moved out from 109 St Mary Street and into Brunel House to shared office space with Cardiff Third Sector Council, a move which not only made the service more physically accessible to potential volunteers, but enabled VCS and C3SC to work together more closely while maintaining their independence and separate identities.
By 2012, VCS was again breaking new ground, developing its presence on social media and returning to the radio airwaves after an absence of 20 years with Cardiff In Action – the weekly radio programme on volunteering produced in partnership with Radio Cardiff. The show featured local organisations making a positive impact and a weekly run-down of new opportunities to volunteer in Cardiff.
The ‘BIG Up’ volunteering project launched in April 2012 to support volunteers aged 16-25 not in employment, education or training, and to work with volunteer-involving organisations to create new opportunities for young people. This was a 2 year project funded by The Big Lottery which exceeded its targets and saw young volunteers benefit in ways such as growth in confidence, development of skills and enhancing feelings of self-worth.
Along with many other Volunteer Centres in the UK, VCS saw a swell of interest inspired by the London Olympics and capitalised on these with roadshows to promote Youth Volunteering and an exciting Volunteers Week event outside the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay.
And the establishment of an agreement with the Welsh Government funded European Work Experience programme ECTARC meant the creation of regular three month placements at VCS for highly skilled young people from across Europe have helped develop the website and the online communications of the service.
In 2013, VCS entered into joint working agreements with both C3SC and the Vale Volunteer Bureau (VVB), to strengthen the collaborative delivery of services such as training on volunteering and good practice. The new interactive Volunteering Wales was also launched, and VCS initiated the development of a panel of young people known as ‘Hype’ which acted to decide what local projects would be beneficiaries of GwirVol grants.
VCS celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014 with a week-long event at The Cardiff Story Museum, and reconnected with many former volunteers, trustees and staff, and continued to grow and to innovate. Partnership agreements with both the UK-wide Community Service Volunteers (CSV) and the international Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) brought local, national and international volunteering together in the same place; and new funding from the Lloyds Bank Foundation enabled the creation of a new and innovative pilot project to help people with criminal convictions and their families to develop skills and re-enter the workforce through volunteering.
Major changes were on the horizon though, as the Welsh Government announced plans to integrate Volunteer Centres into County Voluntary Councils across Wales.
On 31st March 2016, after 2 years of negotiations, the doors of VCS’s Volunteer Bureau closed for the last time and the role & funding transferred to Cardiff Third Sector Council (C3SC).
From April 2016 VCS continued as an independent social action charity committed to breaking down barriers, and to offer additional support to those who may face them – such as people seeking asylum; refugees, people with disabilities or mental health needs; young people not engaged in education or employment and those who find it hard to get paid work due to criminal convictions.
In December 2016 VCS co-located with Cardiff’s local community radio station – back in Butetown, and near where it first started in 1964 – shortly afterwards it was invited to apply to take over the broadcasting licence.
Within a year Radio Cardiff had become an integral part of VCS, and essentially assumed the role that its Volunteer Bureau used to have – at the core of VCS, but not the only thing it does. The volunteer-run radio station has gone from strength-to-strength, with 120 people regularly volunteering by the autumn of 2017, providing a unique platform for Cardiff’s multi-cultural communities. Along with Chronicle, Release and Pave The Way over 200 Cardiff citizens are now volunteering with VCS.
VCS could not do what its does without the support of its funders – the Garfield Weston Foundation; the Ofcom Community Radio Fund; Big Lottery Wales; the Lloyds Bank Foundation; and the Heritage Lottery Fund….or the collaborations with its partners – including Social Firms Wales, Glamorgan Archives, GVS, Care & Repair Cymru, Cardiff Metropolitan University, cavamh and Promo Cymru – and especially not without the people that are, and have always been, its lifeblood – the citizens of Cardiff.
It has changed with the times, but at its core, the values of VCS remain what they were in 1964, to help create a fairer more equal society by offering people the opportunities volunteering provides to change lives and help others.
The story of VCS is their story, and its one that continues to inspire new volunteers, young and not so young, from all walks of life – to make Wales’ capital city an even better place.