A volunteer’s story: There’s something in the water
Saturday 12 th March 2022 is a wonderful day. I proudly hold in my hand keys to the Grade II* listed Moseley Road Baths: I have responsibility for the building during Balsall Heath Second Saturday. The day already felt like it held significance, not just because of the wonderful buzz of activity a Second Saturday brings, nor because it was the first time for over a century the Baths had opened its doors for a public cold-water swim. The day marked a possible turning point in my quest for raising my own self-belief. I look around, taking in the elaborate detailing of the floor mosaics, stain-glassed windows and curved wooden panelling within the foyer and reflect on my journey to holding these keys.
In May 2021 I qualified as a lifeguard and have been volunteering a few hours a week alongside my 4 day-a-week bread and butter employment (project managing in what had been my life-long passion, Birmingham’s arts and cultural sector). An episode of depression had knocked my routine and self-confidence for some weeks, but today I felt determined to reconnect with people and the spirit of positivity to enjoy shared experiences again.
Since my various encounters with waves of depression, which can present internal battlefields for months at a time, I place renewed importance on (and where possible centre my self-care around) carrying out only meaningful tasks: those with a clear beginning, middle, end and likely to have a (subjectively) satisfying and beneficial outcome.
This is not the first time I have come to realise this; it is possibly my reason for reengaging with swimming in my late twenties. As a child I enjoyed lessons and learnt the basics but didn’t keep it up through my teenage or young adult life, instead indulging in my art practice of painting and installation.
Swimming has held a special place for me ever since, as I know it has for many of my friends. There’s something in the water: clarity in the moment, a distraction, an interruption from everything else; its ability to gently envelope the senses; to sooth or numb emotional pain. I have a deep sense of gratitude for swimmable rivers, lakes, oceans and pools as a sanctuary for the mind and body. I see my time volunteering at Moseley Road Baths as a gift back to others who need water in their lives too.
Muddling through the chasm of my inner critical interrogation that so many of us struggle with, seeing other people, friendly faces on a regular basis while volunteering at Thursday’s Chat and Splash session, Women and Children sessions or covering lifeguarding for Friday’s Swim School helped me to build healthier, more positive thought pathways. I would tell myself: ‘If a lifeguard wasn’t here, this session couldn’t go ahead. These swimmers are able to enjoy this precious time because I have given mine.’ This continued to feel like an important constant for me at a time where so many other parts of my mind felt inconsistent and disconnected.
Moseley Road Baths’ team of trustees, staff and volunteers have been a strong source of inspiration, motivationally overcoming what seems to be daily challenges, with various hurdles in the way of keeping the pool running to timetable (a leaking roof, no internet and or phone lines, broken equipment, staff illness or storm damage to name a few). I considered how I value people not on their output, skills and contribution to a greater good, but by our interactions, exchanges, unique personalities, characters and essence. Every individual brings something interesting, engaging, and insightful to the space they hold: a new energy.
Intrigued about the life of hidden parts of the building beyond my usual view of the immediate pool surround, and on hearing stories from the Baths’ team about their non-lifeguarding duties, I volunteered to open, fire up the boiler and lock up a couple of Saturdays since the New Year. Operations Managers Adam and Jakub showed me the ropes in the plant room, full of machines, but taking centre stage, two enormous gas-heated steam boilers. I never met my steam train driving grandfather, but I like to think what has become a new fascination with steam is hereditary, imprinted within my DNA. Learning the basic science behind its complex engineering opened something in my mind, it was so different from the world I was used to, especially the one of lockdown online homeworking from behind a computer screen.
The meditative ten-minute delicate release of the crown valve; the blow down procedure with its twists and turns, water dancing between markers within beautifully designed glass gauges. It’s either working, or its not working. It’s either on or off. Steam punk mentality: I think I am starting to understand.
Despite all this gushing new-found amour for heritage pool engineering and a new lens through which I could recontextualise challenges in my personal life, on this particular Saturday, 12th March 2022, I was secretly relieved that the boiler didn’t need its usual nursing. Previous duty management experiences involved being locked away for hours in the mysterious breezy plant room with its archaic industrial artefacts; every time the various knobs and levers have been opened and closed in their precise method and specified sequence in order to activate the steam-powered heating, something has gone awry and I’ve been tied to its side, pleading with it until the help of General Manager Viv arrives, sacrificing time on a golden day off-shift. Together we’d troubleshoot through my disappointment: even boilers have more complex inner workings than simply being ‘on’ or ‘off’ (mental note to update my rose-tinted lens). It’s how you deal with the situation: how to apply experience and knowledge to understand the issue, re-trace steps and problem-solve, drawing many parallels to my quest for strengthened mental resilience.
Did you know…
Lifeguarding isn’t the only way to give your time: the Baths also provides receptionist training and welcomes a range of skills from many backgrounds – DIY enthusiasts, marketing and communications including social media, photography – there’s sure to be a role to suit. Volunteers can claim back travel expenses and a free weekly swim. If you are interested in volunteering, Sue would love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have been affected by any of the mental health and well-being topics covered in this story, please visit www.mind.org.uk/information-support/ or www.bsmhft.nhs.uk/our-services/birmingham-healthy-minds/ for further support and guidance, or contact your G.P. who should also be able to provide advice and make referrals.
Useful links: Benefits of volunteering for well-being: www.ncvo.org.uk/images/documents/policy_and_research/Impactful-volunteering-understanding-the-impact-of-volunteering-on-volunteers.pdf and www.iwill.org.uk/about-us
Benefits of swimming for well-being: www.swimming.org/swimengland/health-and-wellbeing-benefits-of-swimming/ and www.bupa.co.uk/newsroom/ourviews/benefits-of-swimming