Portraits in words and images featuring people from Gloucester. Words by Christine Jordan, images by artist Russell Haines and managed by James Garrod.
Tammy Dwight has spent a large part of her life volunteering, whether that be coaching gymnastics, giving time as a volunteer police cadet, a civilian leader, a puppy school assistant or acting as a volunteer supervisor for the Gloucester Child Contact Centre.
Today she is the part-time co-ordinator for the centre doing a job she is passionate about, dedicated to and one that gives her immense satisfaction. But life for Tammy wasn’t always full of joy. After working for a financial services company for 25 years she was keenly aware that something was missing from her life. Five years ago Tammy left her highly paid job and went travelling. It was a time in her life when she really didn’t know what she wanted to do. She only knew that her life had to change.
I asked her whether it was a kind of ‘Eat, Pray Love’ experience. Tammy laughed at my suggestion. She obviously knows the book by Elizabeth Gilbert, ‘Eat, Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything’ made into a movie starring Julia Roberts.
“Yeah well… I knew I wanted to finish work and I needed something in between before I decided to start something new. I just went away, enjoyed myself, did some travelling, met up with some family, met new people, had all different types of experiences and adventures. So it just freed my mind really to leave the past behind and think this is a really good launch pad so I could draw a line underneath it.”
‘It’ is something we don’t explore but whatever ‘it’ was, it is now firmly in the past. When she went out to Australia she was a single woman and when she returned, she met someone. A man and someone who remains in her life today. I remark that it seems like her life slotted into place. She found the man, got the job…
“It was a bit like that. I was very lucky in that respect. Doing something I love completely. So volunteering for two years and then being asked to come back here and co-ordinate it. It was just so great.”
Her search for something more in her life was sparked by a personal family situation 5 years ago, which was to set her off on a trajectory which has led her from a high powered job, which she says was financially rewarding to working for a charity on a much reduced salary but a job which is so much more fulfilling on an emotional level.
“The reason I started volunteering? I was looking to do something positive. A family member, their relationship had broken down and there was a child involved and I used to be their supervisor to allow the visits to happen so he could see his mum and dad and just seeing the joy on that little boy’s face pushed me over the edge, being able to help him see mum and dad. Otherwise he couldn’t see anyone without a supervisor being there so rather than get someone quite formal involved they were okay with family members.”
‘They’ being the family court system CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service), which is where parents and their children end up following family breakdowns and where there are contact issues.
Tammy acted as their ‘supervisor’ for almost a year. When the court proceedings were over and the family no longer needed Tammy, she felt she needed to look for something.
“I thought, do you know I really want to be able to do this with other kids because it was such a wonderful feeling to be able to help and make it a positive, fun experience.”
Making the work that the Child Contact Centre does “a positive, fun” experience, given the very nature of their work, is a challenge. But it is testament to the skills that Tammy brings to the role. When I point out to her that her job in financial services was so different to the job she does now Tammy is quick to point out that she has learnt skills that help her in her role as coordinator.
As a Recruitment Coordinator and Senior Trainer, she recruited people, carried out job interviews, assessment centres, welcome sessions and delivered Regulatory & Soft Skills training.
“It helps here when you’re speaking to parents, being able to hold a conversation, have a chit chat. I used to have to stand and chat to up to 35 new starters at any one time.”
Although there’s a difference in the clientele, the skills Tammy brings to the job are the same.
“It’s nice to put them at their ease when they come in because some families when they walk in here they don’t want to be here. Full Stop. They don’t want to use the Contact Centre. Sometimes they are in a real volatile, aggressive position and you have to have that conversation with them and bring them round and be able to make it a more positive thing for them rather than ‘I don’t want to be here’. So some of that training and recruitment interviewing stuff has helped really.”
Tammy’s role at the centre involves interviewing new clients once they are referred to the them. I ask her whether she has ever been in a situation where clients don’t comply with the ground rules set out by the centre.
“You talk them round. Because you’ve built the relationship up over a period of time. Before they come to the contact centre I will have had an hour on the phone with them. That’s a really good rant for them as well and you get so much out of that conversation. Then they have to come in for a pre-visit for an hour or so, it’s quite an intense conversation. I would interview the parent about why their relationship has broken down, why they have separated, why they’ve come to use the centre. It’s like a mini interview.”
Tammy describes this mini-interview as “quite full on.” Again, she understates her role in what must be an intensely fraught conversation, drawing on all of her skills.
“So from the hour on the phone and the hour or so you get to see them at the pre-visit you find out so much about that person that when you do have an incident or an issue it’s easier to draw upon the relationship.”
This is where Tammy excels in the extensive skills she possesses.
“You have to bond with that person really quickly so it’s not like a friend you get to know over years.”
There have been rare occasions when it’s been necessary to escort people from the premises, another hint that Tammy’s job can be more than a little stressful. Again, she plays down the inherent hazards in her role as co-ordinator describing their behaviour as “more of a threat than an action.”
“Because you have this intense conversation with them and you get to know them so quickly it really does help that you’re able to speak to them, talk them down, remember things that they’ve said to you about bits and pieces and you remind them who the priority is here – the child – and that often brings them back down and then you manage to talk through it.”
Tammy still uses her skills as a trainer, providing training to volunteers. Volunteers at the centre have ten mandatory training modules, which they have to do over a period of time.
“You wouldn’t think that if someone was voluntary that these volunteers give up their time to come in and do training in their own time as well as doing the volunteering but they do. I cannot praise our volunteers enough for the work they do and all those who support us, they are fab!”
But she forgets that this is something Tammy did for two years as a volunteer herself in the Child Contact Centre before she became the co-ordinator. She still spends her spare time volunteering but in quite a different role.
From a young age Tammy excelled at gymnastics at her school in Cheltenham but when she got, in her own words, “too big, too heavy, and too inflexible” she turned her hand to coaching competitive gymnastics and to start with on a voluntary basis. Her ‘claim to fame’ is that one of the gymnasts was Leon Taylor, who is now famously known for his role as a judge on the TV programme Splash and long-time friend of Tom Daly, the diver. In 1991 she went to Amsterdam to compete in a Gymnaestrada, where clubs from around the world show what they’re made of. Today Tammy still coaches gymnastics to young children at After School Clubs a couple of times a week in Gloucester city centre and the surrounding area.
“I was coaching competitively, taking kids away for competitions, so now I’m coaching in schools, which is completely different again, something new to try and exciting.”
Tammy also works part time with animals, which is the other love of her life. She gets enormous satisfaction from being in the great outdoors and talking to the animals who, she says “clearly understand her and share her sunny disposition!”
Success for Tammy at the Child Contact Centre would be “moving them on so they don’t have to use us. So that’s parents talking to each other, allowing contact, communicating again.”
They often joke with the parents when they leave the centre by saying “We hope we don’t see you again.”
“Because we know that’s it worked if we don’t see them again. We know they’ve figured it out, they’re communicating, they’ve got rid of their trust issues or their anger, it’s weakened, and they’ve moved on. That’s what we want to see. That they’ve moved it on. I do love it when a family moves on. We’ve helped them in a small way. You can’t knock the parents because they’ve done a lot of hard work here as well getting to the point where they have moved on. It’s great to see that.”
This theme of helping people improve has been constant throughout Tammy’s life: in her job as a trainer, in her role as a gymnastics coach and now as the coordinator for Gloucester Child Contact Centre.
“I like seeing people use their full potential. I support that completely. I just enjoy helping people and watching them improve. Seeing someone who wasn’t able to do something or hasn’t quite reached their goal or their ambition and you’ve helped them on that journey to do that thing or to get out of the Contact Centre so you know you’ve helped them get there.”
When I ask her what the future holds she immediately answers that it would be to do more for the Child Contact Centre.
“To carry on as I am, just helping people achieve their dream or their goal like I managed to do when I left work and had that launch pad for me to start a new beginning. It’s great to see other people have their new beginnings or achieve stuff. We have some parents who haven’t been so lucky with their lives but when they see their children for a long time it kinda kick starts them into something new again. Some may have had a criminal past but they haven’t committed any crimes since having their relationship back on track with their children and that’s just brilliant.”
Tammy is always on the lookout for new volunteers so if you are interested in volunteering you can contact Tammy via the Gloucester Child Contact Centre on 07522 541005 or email firstname.lastname@example.org