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'Ordinary People Doing Ordinary Things'

In the documentary material, we identified personal qualities that volunteers are considered to need to be 'good' support persons. These include patience, trustworthiness and good interaction skills, and the willingness and ability to be encouraging and supportive. Also mentioned were 'educative' skills, which in some cases meant setting limits to the child (D1; D2; D6, 18–19; D7, 31–4). Nevertheless the emphasis, noted particularly in a handbook for support persons (D6), is on 'ordinary people' whose strengths are in their non-professionalism and ordinariness (cf. Regner and Johnsson 2007, 321).

The interviews confirmed that the volunteers had internalized these behavioral norms and the values of 'ordinariness': when asked to describe themselves as support persons they represented themselves as 'ordinary people', without specific educational or professional qualifications for the support task. Many, however, were not just 'ordinary': more than half already had a professional background in education, social care or health care. Some were studying to become a professional or were currently employed in welfare services while others were retirees from welfare services. Several volunteers also had previous experience of working professionally with children or families. Nevertheless, the interviewees stressed that they were 'not making miracles' (I5, I10) or 'performing magic tricks' (I3, I7), but doing 'just ordinary, normal everyday things' which to them meant 'normal being and doing together' with the child (I1, I3, I6, I8, I9, I10).

Probing into these 'ordinary everyday things' revealed that they might include playing, cooking, baking, being out-of-doors, doing sports, or going to the swimming hall, the movies or a cafeteria – all of which the volunteers claimed are 'natural' things to do with children and also self-evidently actions that 'support' a child.


Lay Professionals?

The interviews also revealed another meaning of 'ordinary things': the volunteers described their support activities as 'preventive child welfare work' (I2, I3, I6, I7) that was simultaneously cost-effective or low-budget support for families in trouble (I2, I8, I9).

This is first and foremost preventive action, to avoid those harsher interventions. And I think society saves a lot of money, at least statistically and on average, if even one case can be prevented. But of course, from the point of view of any child, this [action] is all-important, whether or not there were fears of more drastic measures. (I2)

The lexicon of 'risks', 'prevention' and 'cost-effectiveness' clearly derives from the policy debates of the day and the media. However, for the volunteers the fact that PSP is supervised and monitored by professionals in both the Organization (the coordinator) and the local child welfare agency (social workers) also validates their sense of being involved in a 'risk-preventive intervention' managed by social work experts and governmental institutions (cf. Smeyers 2010, 280). This emerged in the discourse of professional child welfare work that they often used when talking about the goals of the practice and their own engagement. The occupational background of many of the volunteers supported this orientation. The older volunteers, in particular retirees from health care or social services, felt that they were continuing to work in the field, whereas students may felt that they were already working, as if professionally, in the field.

A more ambiguous sense of difference and distance between the volunteers and professional social workers emerged when the volunteers talked about the lack of cooperation between the two categories and the non-availability of social workers for the volunteers. While for some volunteers this was quite acceptable, others were critical. Some, for instance, wanted more information on the background of the children and their families. The point was also frequently made that in their hectic professional work the social workers put their (scarce) resources into carrying out 'harsher interventions', rather than collaborating with the volunteers in preventive work.

There hasn't been much collaboration. This may be the biggest problem, the lack of collaboration. What we are doing is, after all, a form of early prevention for those families, and I think that they [social workers] focus more on fixing problems than preventing them. (I6)

Thus, several volunteers raised the difference between the work done by volunteers and professional social work, criticizing the bureaucratic-looking work of the child welfare social workers. Differences were seen to exist on several
dimensions, although understanding was also expressed regarding the social workers' meagre time resources. Yet more importantly:

… letting [the child] be among ordinary people, ordinary adults … people who take time to listen. (…) I, at any rate, have sometimes pondered how I would like it, would I rather talk to a total stranger who is someone doing this kind of work [volunteering], than go to the office for a chat: I would surely pick the ordinary person. (I8)

There is, then, a sense of volunteering not only being child welfare work but also more 'genuine', perhaps a 'family-like' form of caring when compared to the child welfare work of the social workers that volunteers often described as bureaucratic.

 
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