Working in the charity sector keeps you busy for pretty much the entire day so finding time in people’s busy calendars can be a challenge in its own right. So we were delighted to grab 60 seconds with Judith Smith, formerly Director of Help and Advice at The Charity for Civil Servants and now newly appointed Chief Executive of the New Bridge Foundation to find out about the challenges she faces in her new role and what volunteering opportunities are available….

Hi Judith, can you tell us a bit about the New Bridge Foundation and what it does?

Founded by Lord Longford in 1956, New Bridge’s core ethos was, and remains, treating and befriending prisoners as individuals.  Our volunteers help them to reconnect with the world outside by writing to them, visiting and keeping in contact with them wherever they move to. We’re actively supporting people in 76 prisons in England and Wales.  The longest relationship that a prisoner has had with New Bridge is 32 years but on average prisoners have been in contact with New Bridge for 5 years. More than 7500 letters are exchanged between prisoners and their volunteers every year.

What would you say to someone who was thinking about becoming a befriender with New Bridge?

I think we’d rather that people considered carefully whether this is for them rather than jump in too quickly.  We do recruit and select volunteers really carefully and at every stage there’s plenty of opportunity to think and reflect.  We have an initial two day training event and we expect that new volunteers will attend two group sessions before they actually start writing to someone.  We don’t anticipate that any volunteer will visit someone in prison until they’ve been writing to each other for 6 months – this allows their befriending relationship to develop first.

We have lots of checks and balances in place to preserve our volunteers’ privacy and identity – for example we encourage the use of pseudonyms and provide guidance about how to write letters that don’t reveal too much identifying information.

If you join New Bridge as a volunteer you really are joining a community of committed and passionate people where everyone takes delight in supporting each other.  All our volunteers share our belief that people are people and that no-one should be defined solely by the worst thing they have done.

What do you find your volunteers tend to enjoy most about the role?

Our volunteers come from every walk of life – we have authors, members of the legal position, students, self-employed people, civil and public sector staff – you name it . . . There are lots of people around with an interest in prisons and an interest in helping people in prison to make the changes they need to make to live better lives. 

Interestingly, many volunteers comment on the opportunity afforded to them to get to know and appreciate people that they would never know in the normal course of their lives.  Many of the befriending relationships really are two way streets – there’s something to learn about and to like in most of us!

What are your main goals for the year ahead?

We want to grow befriending – ideally to double the support we’re able to offer through our volunteer befrienders.  So we want to recruit more volunteers and develop more groups so that we have the right structure in place to accept applications from people in prison who are isolated and vulnerable

If you’d be interested in volunteering with the New Bridge Foundation you can call 020 8671 3856, email: [email protected] or visit www.newbridgefoundation.org.uk