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Reflecting on the Palliative Care Congress in Montreal

I was delighted to learn back in March this year that the abstract I submitted to the 22nd International Congress on Palliative Care had been selected for presentation. This annual conference focuses on all aspects of palliative care, from the clinical side to the psycho-social side.

My subject - volunteer engagement. This was a great opportunity to showcase the work that my team have been pioneering at CHAS, to raise the volunteer voice and empower volunteers to transform their own volunteering programme (with a particular focus on communications and learning).

My presentation went well and I was delighted with the response from the audience, with many of them asking questions and connecting on social media afterwards.

Attending the week-long conference was inspiring. Canada is a global leader in volunteerism so the conference location of Montreal excited me. When I arrived at the venue to register, I was greeted by a volunteer at the registration desk who enthusiastically shared with me that the entire conference had been organised by volunteers.

And volunteers were not only involved in organising, chairing and leading sessions, the subject of volunteering was integrated throughout almost every session I attended. Big tick for me! This was only the beginning. I came across numerous examples of how volunteering is fully embedded in service delivery in Canada and other parts of the world. I met the Medical Director of a rural hospice in Ontario who is one of just three employees in his organisation. The hospice service is delivered by approximately 200 volunteers. I spent a coffee break chatting to him and a volunteer from the hospice and was inspired by the trust placed in volunteers. Many things I came across helped me to appreciate even more that the value of lived experience that volunteers bring to end of life care is unique and powerful.

Reflecting on my own experience in the UK, as a sector, whilst we involve volunteers in our work, volunteers can sometimes be viewed as secondary to staff - there to supplement and add value to the work of paid staff as opposed to bringing value in their own right. In recent years, in the UK and across the world, we have also seen a swing towards professionalised clinical care at the expense of volunteers and community.

In contrast, I was heartened to hear over the course of the week about all the palliative care services being delivered by volunteers across the world. I feel inspired and excited about enabling volunteers in CHAS to take on greater responsibility and more meaningful roles that are family-facing. Wouldn't it be amazing if we too could be more courageous and bold in the development of volunteering opportunities and devolve more to volunteers, such as the running of bereavement groups and community projects? Last year we piloted a programme whereby volunteers provided support to families in their homes and I'm delighted that we are now scaling that programme up to reach even more families. There is a real opportunity to grow this and other models of volunteer support in the community and I'm excited about exploring that potential.

It was motivating to see that CHAS is not just a UK-leader but a global leader in so many aspects of volunteering development. I came away feeling satisfied that we were punching above our weight on the international stage and I'm more fired up than ever to grow volunteering in our services at CHAS.

As I work with teams to develop volunteering, I'll remember the words of a researcher from the University of Montreal, who declared "we must remember that community spirit is embodied by volunteers. They humanise care and offer time, an ear, a presence. We diminish the role of volunteers at our risk!"

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