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‘One of the most rewarding things I have ever done’

26 February 2016

Co Derry woman Maura Johnston’s travels took her as far across the world as Swaziland in southern Africa, but the creative writing and reminiscence groups she facilitates closer to home are delighted she’s back among them.

Maura recently added a new string to her bow when she became a volunteer with the Verbal Arts Centre’s award-winning Reading Rooms project and, she’s encouraging others to join the team.

The Derry-based organisation just recruited a new batch of volunteers to deliver its mobile, shared reading aloud programme which it is delivering in the area on behalf of Mid Ulster District Council as part of community and education activity linked to the opening this September of the new Seamus Heaney facility in Bellaghy.

The programme is part funded by the Council and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, with training taking place in the Burnavon Arts and Cultural Centre in Cookstown for the newest members of the Reading Rooms team who, not only enjoy reading, but also share a passion to help others in the community.

Better still, they have an extra hour or two each week to make a difference delivering Reading Rooms with older people including those with dementia; children and youth including those at risk or in care; and people living with long term health conditions e.g. stroke, mental health difficulties, or disability.

Volunteers who deliver a wide range of Reading Rooms across Northern Ireland, are supported with free accredited training: OCN Level 2 Facilitation Skills for Shared Reading (3 Day Course) with Master Classes and Monthly Volunteer Support Meetings.

Maura Johnston, a native of Moneymore, who taught and worked for the Southern  Education and Library Board, joined Reading Rooms as a volunteer in late 2014/early 2015, reading from novels, short stories and poems selected by the Verbal Arts Centre’s Literary Guide.

“I love the conversations; the responses to the texts cannot be predicted. I love it when someone really enjoys a story or poem,” said Maura, who believes the main qualities for a volunteer are, “love of reading; confidence to read aloud; the ability to manage group dynamics; the ability to listen; and the ability to be flexible.”

Maura explained that there are numerous benefits to health and well-being both for the group and the volunteer delivering the Reading Room.

“For the group there is the pleasure of hearing stories or poems - everyone loves hearing a story -   they might not have the ability or opportunity or materials to read themselves. There is the opportunity to respond in a safe environment; the benefit that every contribution is valued; and the social aspect of enjoying a shared experience.

“For the volunteer the benefits are just as much as for the group. The volunteers have the opportunity to hear stories and poems - some are revisited, some are new; there is the chance to learn from the group; and the social aspect is important. Making a commitment to a group, getting to know its members and seeing the enjoyment of the group make the project worthwhile for the volunteer.

“There are many highlights but what touched me most was when two of the group I attend, changed their day and came of their own volition an extra afternoon to remain part of the Reading Rooms group.”

An avid reader all her life, Maura is reluctant to leave out any of her favourite writers along her literary journey of discovery with a list that would leave a bookworm breathless!

“I like all the well known Irish authors and poets. I like the works of Raymond Carver, Carol Shields, Alice Munroe, Barbara Pym, Katherine Mansfield, Saki, John Irving, Marilyn Robinson, Anne Tyler, Annie Proulx, Iris Murdoch .....

“As for poets, as well as Irish poetry I enjoy the works of Carol Ann Duffy, Elizabeth Bishop, Billy Collins, Ted Hughes, Mary Oliver, Gerard Manley Hopkins and of course a Seamus Heaney poem is always a welcome choice for a Reading Rooms group in Mid Ulster.  Not only are his poems accessible and a joy to read aloud, listeners and readers alike can identify with many of his experiences and are familiar with places he mentions. The new Centre will add opportunities to learn more about the poet and his work in congenial surroundings.”

Her advice for anyone thinking of becoming a volunteer in the future - “If you feel you might like this, if you enjoy reading and are interested in people, then give it a go. It is one of the most rewarding things that I have ever done!”

Sinead Devine, Reading Rooms Project Manager, paid tribute to Maura’s commitment to the programme, often travelling to Derry to participate in Reading Rooms, training and the Volunteer Meetings.

She said: “I am delighted that the Verbal Arts Centre is now expanding to deliver in the Mid Ulster area with support from the Council as we have successfully built our programmes north west and in the east. I think she will really enjoy being a part of a growing group of volunteers based in her own locality and the new volunteers will certainly benefit from her knowledge and experience."

For further information about Reading Rooms or how to become a volunteer, contact the Verbal Arts Centre, Tel: 02871 266946 or email readingrooms@theverbal.co.uk


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