Volunteers good but trained staff also needed

Lastt Friday's report ("Getting neighbours to fix spoilt bikes") highlights volunteers as a social resource and their contribution to the vitality of community life.

It is true that more can be done to promote volunteerism at the local level. The long-term effects of institutionalising young people and the impact of diagnostic labelling on service users are also genuine concerns.

But the report over-generalises the unique experiences of one practitioner from a specific area of social service and paints an incomplete picture of the social services.

Social service professionals and volunteers are not in competition. Both are needed to build resilient communities and families.

Social workers wear many hats, including that of community organiser. Effective volunteer initiatives require leadership, planning and coordination - roles often filled by professionals.

The appropriate mix of professionals and volunteers depends on the area of social need.

In youth work, volunteers are often effectively deployed as peer befrienders and adult mentors.

But many other areas require greater professional involvement.

Social service professionals provide prompt statutory intervention and ensure safety in abusive family situations, which are sometimes concealed within the immediate social network.

Trained therapists give children with special needs the close attention they need in their early years.

Medical social workers help patients and their families to plan transitions from hospital to community- and home-based care.

Social service professionals also conduct research and make policy representations to funders regarding neglected social issues.

Working with community resources is not without its challenges.

For instance, in mentoring programmes that match troubled young people to adult role models, volunteer turnover can destabilise that sense of trust which these programmes aim to rebuild.

An over-reliance on natural helping networks may also amplify inherent inequalities across communities. In localities where social needs are greater, the community is often also more stretched for resources.

Public social services can help to even out these differences.

To claim that the expansion of social services must be at the expense of community self-help or that organised social services are "doing more harm than good" is a disservice to the many people who have been helped and others who still need support from a sector that remains under-resourced.

Ng Kok Hoe, Reader

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