Research volunteer: many ways to make a difference!

My name is Hannah Kollef, and I’m a research volunteer with the Scottish Waterways Trust in Inverness.  After finishing my MSc in Library Science this September, I was looking for volunteer opportunities. I initially contacted Stephen thinking that he might have some conservation efforts I could help with – tree planting, pond-litter-raking, that sort of thing – and was delighted when he suggested I come along to a session of something called Nature Walks for Wellbeing. He said he might have some research for me to assist with, and he’d like for me to get to know the programme.

Well, here I am, two months later, knee deep in research and loving it.

Stephen has been running Nature Walks for Wellbeing (NWW) for two years. It consists of weekly 90 minute sessions with two major aims: to help participants attain the health benefits of time spent in the outdoors through mindful and nature based activities, and for participants to take away a greater appreciation for nature and its values. This results in mental health benefits and increased resilience in participants. It also introduces them to the many greenspaces available to the public in Inverness, with the canal a particular highlight. I know that I have benefited from this exposure to all the different greenspaces, as I only recently moved to the area.

In the last year, Stephen has been working on producing research to prove the efficacy of NWW, and when I emailed him he had already completed two of the three requisite studies needed for his ‘proof of concept’ paper. He asked me to help him produce the third as a research volunteer, and gradually I became involved with the wider project. I am now working on the literature review, putting the skills learned from my master’s degree to good use.

As well as my time as a research volunteer, I have also been participating in the weekly nature walks, and found myself enveloped in a warm, wonderful community of people I might never have met otherwise. I enjoy the physical exercise of walking along the towpaths, and the various activities we do to induce mindfulness and help us connect to the nature of the highlands. My favourite part, however, is the social aspect. In every session, we have a coffee, flapjack and fire break at the end, giving us a chance to chat and relax in a natural setting. Two participants volunteer to make homemade flapjacks and tea for everyone, and have even started a guessing game of sorts, with a new secret ingredient in the flapjacks every week. These small rituals in the midst of nature are a highlight of the week, a chance to escape one’s personal bubble and breathe in the life of an interconnected community.  It is also a place of spiritual and mental healing, a chance for those experiencing mental illness to connect with others in a safe, comfortable environment.

We plan to have our final report ready just after the New Year, and will distribute it to interested participants, NHS staff, and the wider world. It is our hope to eventually expand NWW to other parts of the highlands. This report is the first step needed to show Stephen’s & the Scottish Waterways Trust’s hard work, and its potential to help so many others.

For now, you can find me most days at the Scottish Waterways Trust, enjoying a cup of tea and trying not to get distracted from my research by the view of the canal.