David Florida James is one of the longest serving volunteers on the Reading Rooms project, joining us during the City of Culture year in 2013. He developed new skills by completing the bespoke OCN Level 2 in Facilitation Skills for Shared Reading that the Verbal developed in 2014. David, who was a Biology teacher at St Columb’s College has a long history of volunteering work. Amongst his volunteering work he has given many hours over the years to both the Credit Union and to Corrymeela, and still volunteers at Corrymeela to this day.
What do you think older people in particular get from being a part of the RR?
“For some, it can simply be a trip down memory lane, as the stories and poems can evoke memories of past times. Not that older people are not interested in modern literature because I have found that they are but just that for some older people, for example those with dementia appealing to preserved memories can literally open a door for them. Almost a window on to the mind. I do also think the older they are the more important unlocking these memories becomes as they are telling their own stories by using the literature to access them”.
What have you gained by being a Volunteer and also what was special about volunteering for the Reading Rooms?
“Volunteering is my reason for getting out of bed. For me, any volunteering I have done I have always received so much more than what I have put in and working on the Reading Rooms has been priceless, invaluable, like a surprise! Also meeting other volunteers and the staff here that makes it all special too.”
Some special moments
David noted that his highlight memory was with a group of older men in Strabane. They had noted his lovely Welsh accent and one of the group mentioned Dylan Thomas who is a great favourite of David’s. This man knew the famous poem ‘Do not go gentle into that good night‘. His son had committed suicide and it had been read at the funeral. David just happened to have a copy in his bag and the man asked him to read it. “I really wasn’t sure to be honest and there were tears around the room but it worked so well, it just worked.” This was a moment he said that everyone noted was so important for each other in the group.
Another highlight was with a dementia group with patients and carers. David had read a story about two characters, ‘Faith and Hope Go Shopping’ by Joanne Harris and then after a 6 week break read another story about the two same characters. He was amazed to find that about 5 or 6 of the dementia patients remembered them from the first story. They even remembered what the story was about “the red shoes”. This amazed David due to the gap in time between reading the two stories. One of the carers also noted the importance of his volunteering; “You don’t know just how much this means to me and my partner. Even on the way home we are still taking about the stories after each session.” That meant a lot to David and also made him change his ideas about people living with dementia and believes that it help changed some of the carer’s ideas too, “That we underestimate people because of the dementia label.”
What are some of the challenges you have encountered on the programme?
“Sometimes the materials need to be more succinct for some groups of older people. Poems tend to go down very well due to this even if they are more abstract in nature. That’s the interesting thing about the Reading Rooms – no two groups are the same and even if you are using the same literature with a number of groups the responses can differ greatly. I have also had to read stories right through to the end with some groups rather than stop/starting as we usually do as this can leave some people confused. The discussion has come afterwards and this has worked very well. I think it is because they lose the thread more easily, the concentration span can be less. But when I have made suggestions they are not just dismissed – it is not lip service but really listening and acting on it by the staff at Verbal. I feel supported. There is very good communication.”
Finally a really difficult question for David when asked what his favourite story or poem to read in the Reading Rooms, as he has read so many stories and poems in the three years he has been with the programme. But David, with his love of all things Welsh, noted his great love for the works of the writer Dylan Thomas, who he has helped introduce into the bank of Reading Rooms literature, particularly ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’.
When asked if he had any recommended reads, David said his favourite book tends to be the one he is currently reading but that he has a great love or preference for poetry. David referred to another favourite Dylan Thomas piece ‘Holiday Memory’ that has been loved in the Reading Rooms. One group has asked him on occasion to re-visit it. “It is so vivid for older people in particular. “ So as the summer draws to a close for another year let’s finish with some of those amazingly vivid holiday memories from Dylan Thomas; ‘I remember the smell of sea and seaweed, wet flesh, wet hair, wet bathing-dresses… the smell of pop and splashed sunshades and toffee, the stable-and-straw smell of hot, tossed, tumbled, dug, and trodden sand … the smell of vinegar on shelled cockles, winkle smell, shrimp smell, the dripping-oily backstreet winter-smell of chips in newspaper…”