Alumni Profile Series: Katie Forsyth from KEEN Oxford
Dania Kamal Aryf
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to Katie Forsyth, an Oxford alumni who now works for KEEN – a charity which aims to provide social engagement for disabled youth. Katie, who graduated from Wadham College in 2020 with a Bachelor’s degree in German and Arabic, informs me that she is currently the Inclusive Communities Manager representative for the Oxfordshire branch of the organisation. She has had a longstanding interest in volunteering for various different causes – including throughout her year abroad in Jordan, where she had taught English lessons to refugees who were in the process of relocating to the United Kingdom and the United States. When she returned to Oxford in her third year, Katie was determined to continue with volunteering, hence, her participation with KEEN also began around the same time, in 2018. Eventually, she decided to continue working with them as a full-time job, after completing her studies.
“What made you initially sign up as a volunteer with KEEN, specifically?” I ask.
“I’d say it was just seeing kind of all that energy and enthusiasm and fun that KEEN has. It was always so alive and vibrant… and just the sort of idea of inclusion and the fact that everyone is welcome – disabled people and non-disabled people just together, having fun. What made me stay on was that I got to continue being part of that environment. When I was studying, it was always the charity side of things, and getting to meet lots of different people that I enjoyed the most. So I thought that when I graduate, it was exactly what I wanted to do.”
KEEN first began in 1984 in Oxford with the aim of providing more inclusive and accessible social opportunities for disabled people. Katie informs me that KEEN is always welcoming more volunteers, especially for their Buddies Outreach programme. The programme, being fairly recent, was only launched in September 2020 and began receiving funding from the Oxfordshire City Council in 2018. I asked Katie to tell me more about being a ‘Buddy’, and what it supposedly entails.
“Our community Buddies Outreach programme matches young disabled people, and young non-disabled people one-to-one. Most of the disabled youth are between ages 5-25, and we aim to recruit more young people (ie, between ages 18-25) as volunteers. The idea is for them to meet up and socialise – ie, going to the cinema together, playing sports together, going shopping together, absolutely anything they would be comfortable with. The idea is mainly to get more young disabled people out and involved with the community, and helping them make new friends and build relationships. For the volunteers, it also aims to get more young people involved and out of their own bubble – so being able to meet new people and engage with the wider Oxfordshire community,” she says.
I ask Katie for a bit more details regarding the application process, and how one can sign up to become a volunteer.
“So we use the term ‘Buddy’ for all the volunteers, and the link to sign up is in our webpage,” she says. “You’d need to get a DBS screening first, and then we run a training session for the volunteers with a bit of info on what KEEN is, and on disability awareness, tips for communication, etc. So I would say, probably from the moment of signing up to officially becoming a Buddy for someone would probably take about four weeks or so, depending on how quickly you get through.”
Although the role is mainly flexible and not too workload heavy for volunteers, a Buddy should still be able to preferably commit for at least two consecutive Oxford terms (ie, between 4-5 months). Throughout the Covid lockdown, KEEN ensured that the respective disabled students and their Buddies were still able to keep in touch consistently via virtual meet-ups and video calls. This included online events such as virtual museum tours in partnership with the Ashmolean and the Pitt Rivers, informal quizzes over Zoom, and virtual escape rooms.
Katie continues to tell me how KEEN also frequently liaises with schools, other charities, and medical professionals, to encourage more young disabled people to get involved. “We mostly reach out to local GPs or hospitals, and work with special education schools. They can refer some of the young individuals to us so we can get them matched up with a Buddy. We have worked with Autism Family Support, for example, to see if any of the people involved would also benefit from a Buddy as well.”
“Would a disabled youth who wanted to participate in KEEN’s activities require a referral then?” I question. “Oh no, absolutely not! They can just go to our website and fill up the form, and anyone can sign up at all. We also share a lot through Facebook pages for families and young people, so we can get more people involved,” Katie responds enthusiastically.