Graeme McGrath

Volunteer Manager Trainee, Speke Hall

Graeme McGrath - Volunteer Manager Trainee

Former tree surgeon Graeme McGrath, 46, switched from managing trees to volunteers. He has become a champion of inclusion at Speke Hall, working in partnership with local organisations to engage the diverse communities on its doorstep.

Graeme McGrath, one of our trainee Volunteer Managers

What were you doing before the traineeship?

I started as a self-employed gardener, but after regularly being asked if I was able do tree surgery, I enrolled on an arboriculture course on Lord Derby’s estate. I gained several certificates from The Royal Forestry Society and NPTC/City and Guilds with good marks, so my tutor suggested that I should apply for a BSc in Arboriculture at Myerscough College in Preston.

Three years later, I had my degree, but this was at the time of the economic downturn, so it became more difficult to secure regular work. As a result, I took a post with the local authority as an environmental worker. 

Although I enjoyed the work, I didn’t feel fulfilled, so I began looking for volunteering opportunities where I could use my knowledge and contribute to my community.

What drew you to apply for the traineeship?

If I’m totally honest, my girlfriend talked me into it. She found the role online and at first, I thought she meant a ranger job or something like that, but when she said it was for a Volunteer Manager, I was unsure. I thought to myself:  I’ve done plenty of volunteering, but I’ve never managed anyone. I’ve only ever managed trees.

I had visited a few National Trust places before, and I always thought that it would be a wonderful place to work. Speke Hall is only 15 minutes up the road, and I’d often thought about trying to get a ranger role there, through my experience in tree surgery. 

So although I’d always fancied working for the National Trust, it had always been with a different role in mind. 

How has this traineeship helped you?

By funding this traineeship, the Heritage Lottery Fund has definitely helped open up the heritage sector. There are so many people out there like me, who are passionate and should be given a chance, but without funding, and without paid traineeships, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

An Easter bonnet parade at Speke Hall, Cheshire
An Easter bonnet parade at Speke Hall, Cheshire
An Easter bonnet parade at Speke Hall, Cheshire

How are you giving other people a chance to get involved at Speke?

We really wanted to diversify our volunteering offer to attract young volunteers, the local Chinese community and residents from the surrounding housing estates. Working in partnership with existing service providers like The Liverpool NHS Social Inclusion Team, South Liverpool Housing, Riverside Housing and the Liverpool Guild of Students has allowed us to reach some excluded groups that we would not ordinarily be able to access alone.

The NHS Social Inclusion Team representative was quite cautious at first. He had reservations that we were only looking to ‘tick a diversity box’ for our own ends and that the local community were fed up of this type of token interaction from organisations. I assured him we were looking to create a sustainable relationship and as a gesture of good will we would invite several community groups to visit free of charge. That went down very well!

We’ve now started a project to help develop a work experience programme for young people aged 16-25 from the neighbouring Housing Association. We also have a bi-lingual student fluent in English and Mandarin who has translated our short guide book for Chinese visitors. As a volunteer she has been giving guided tours in Mandarin to groups from the Social Inclusion Team. 

Your volunteers have also been working hard to make Speke more accessible to people with disabilities. How is that going?

There is real passion among our staff and volunteers to work with local disability groups. We identified some volunteers who had experience of access issues from their working or personal lives and asked them to take part in an Access for All working group. It was important for the volunteers to have as much input as possible.

A few ‘quick wins’ such as a social story for autism groups with early opening on event days; a sensory trail through the house and a translation of our short, self-led guide. We also put in place a few longer term goals such as becoming a Dementia friendly site, delivering British Sign Language guided tours and improving paths and signage.

I put myself forward to contact the Alzheimer’s Society to become a Dementia Friend and also get training to deliver awareness sessions to staff and volunteers. 

Our social story and early opening allowed autism family groups to experience our Easter event without worrying about the crowds. One of our volunteers has even crafted a relief reproduction of a section of the house, to explain where the eavesdropper is located for visually impaired visitors. 

Graeme is continuing his community engagement work in his new role as Volunteer Coordinator at Speke Hall.