Volunteers at the Buckingham Winslow & District Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) received certificates on Thursday to mark National Volunteers Week.
The certificates were awarded by bureau manager Janis Harding at the CAB’s monthly team meeting.
Buckingham and Winslow CAB has 22 volunteers who give advice and others who provide reception and admin services.
It is one of only three bureaux in the country to have received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service and was honoured by a visit from the Princess Royal in 2012.
Deputy bureau manager Ian Payne said: “I’m not sure everybody who uses the CAB realises we’re predominantly staffed by volunteers.
“The only reason the bureau can afford to keep open is because the majority of the work is done by volunteers.
“Last year we totted up and, if we had to pay our volunteers the going rate, it’s the equivalent of about £55,000 a year to keep the bureau open.
“Buckingham and Winslow are lucky to have such a high quality of volunteers.
“When somebody comes in with a problem, I’d like to think they’re dealt with in a professional way.
“Once people join the bureau as volunteers, it tends to get into their blood and they stay for years and years.”
Volunteers undertake extensive training, taking between a year and 18 months, all of which is done in their own time.
Mr Payne said: “It’s absolutely phenomenal, I think.
“In terms of the training they have to go through, it’s the most rigorous of any volunteer training.”
Many volunteers are retired and want to give something back to society. Others have taken a career break and are using volunteering as a stepping stone to get back into work.
And demand for their services is growing.
Mr Payne said: “For the last three months, compared with the equivalent three months the previous year, our business is up 40 per cent.”
He said this is down to changes in the benefits system, cuts to legal aid and the increased cost of going to industrial tribunal, which means people are turning to the CAB for employment advice instead.
“And we’re still dealing with a lot of debt issues,” he added. “That never seems to go away. And we’re finding debt problems are more complicated than they were four or five years ago.”
Problems involving loan sharks, payday loans and rent arrears are taking longer for advisers to sort out, with volunteers staying late to make calls and write up case notes.
“Just because the front door’s closed doesn’t mean we’re not doing anything,” Mr Payne said. “We’re working on the cases.”
Buckingham Winslow & District CAB remains committed to delivering a face to face service at its offices in Market Hill, Buckingham, and its outreach service in Winslow.
“If you want advice, face to face is the gold standard,” said Mr Payne.
“But it is resource hungry. We are reliant on having enough volunteers to offer that face to face service but it’s what clients really value.”
Trish Mackway, 57, from Brackley, is a part-time administrator and HR professional who has been a CAB volunteer for seven years.
She said: “It’s so rewarding, it really is. You learn so much – it’s an education.
“We feel we can assist and it’s a very rewarding role.
“I’ve stopped bring surprised. You learn fairly quickly that nothing is surprising. Life can be tough, whatever walk of life you come from.
“The people who are affected by debt have changed. It’s affecting more people.
“You learn how to interview, you learn how to be non-judgmental. Your remit is to do the very best for your client regardless.
“If somebody’s made the effort to pick up the phone or walk over the threshold, you want to do your best for them. And it is all entirely confidential.
“We help with all aspects of life and if we can’t, we do our very best to direct them to the people who can.
“We have at our fingertips the latest legislation and we have access to other organisations such as ACAS and Shelter, and we seek advice from them.”
Lisa Clarke, 43, from Buckingham, is a freelance HR advisor who has been volunteering two mornings a week at the CAB for the past year.
She said: “It sits quite nicely alongside what I do. I quite missed working in a team alongside people and it’s really lovely to be working in a team again.
“I have two small children and this fits in with what I do and I can work around my family commitments.
“It’s a lovely environment. The clients we get are very grateful for the help we can give them. It’s very varied, so it’s very interesting.
“They do offer an extensive training package, which has been brilliant.
“I would say the three areas we tend to see are benefits, housing and debt.
“And I’ve noticed, the amount of online claims and forms. Not everyone is computer literate and they find it quite confusing.
“It’s quite a big commitment but it’s just so lovely when someone’s so grateful and they say: ‘I just don’t know how to thank you.’”
Louise Hammond, 54, who lives near Aylesbury, has been a volunteer for 18 months.
She said: “It’s very interesting and very rewarding and a lovely team to work with.
“We cover a very wide range of issues but mostly debt, benefits and bereavement, because that sets off a whole lot of other problems.
“And obviously a lot of divorce – all the procedures of going through a divorce and contact with children,
“Consumer issues we get a lot of, anything from car insurance to not being able to pay the electricity bills.”
Kevin Hewson, 58, from Quainton, began training as a CAB volunteer eight months ago after retiring from a position with a City bank.
He said: “When I stopped working, I knew I needed to have a mix of my own life – fun, if you like – and doing something challenging that I felt good about.
“I thought it would be well organised and effective, but I’ve been seriously impressed with the standards these people deliver.
“It takes me into situations that, while I knew they existed, I’d never touched, and it’s mentally stimulating.
“But I do get surprises sometimes. I had three weeks running when I had to deal with domestic violence and that was challenging.
“The other one is consumer areas where, from time to time you see what appear to be some very sharp practices.”
Buckingham Winslow & District CAB is always on the lookout for more volunteers. Call 01280 816787.