Volunteers' Week 2024 - Meet Sarah Ashford

Volunteers' Week 2024 - Meet Sarah Ashford

Volunteers' Week, running from 3rd to 6th June, celebrates the amazing contributions volunteers make to communities across the UK. It’s a chance to recognise, celebrate and thank the UK’s incredible volunteers for all they contribute to our local communities, the voluntary sector, and society as a whole.

Volunteers are essential to Fine Cell Work, and are on the front line of our programmes, delivering our services both inside and outside of prisons. To mark Volunteers' Week, we spoke to just two of the amazing individuals who give their time and energy to help deliver our services. In this article we meet Sarah Ashford, a modern quilter, teacher and wellness coach, who has been volunteering with Fine Cell Work since 2023. 

Sarah, what does your volunteering role at Fine Cell Work entail?

My role as a volunteer mentor to Open The Gate apprentices involves getting to know apprentices on a one-to-one basis. I support them as they make the transition from being inside, to working in the post-release hub, and re-integrating into their local community.

I also focus on all aspects of their wellbeing, ensuring that they are socialising, looking after themselves, seeking out positive opportunities, and encourage them to find employment, volunteering opportunities, or courses, such as the Open College Network qualifications offered by Fine Cell Work.

This is the perfect role for me because I have recently qualified as a wellness coach, and I have been a quilter for over 15 years. We meet every couple of weeks and, because I don’t live in London, we take a hybrid approach, meeting on Zoom and in-person. This has worked really well as it’s meant I’ve been able to run sessions with my mentee, even when I can’t be there in person.

What drew you to Fine Cell Work as an organisation?

I have long since been passionate about Fine Cell Work's work. I first came across the charity back in 2010 when I went to the Quilts, 1700 - 2010 exhibition at the V&A Museum, and the HMP Wandsworth Quilt made a lasting impression on me. I was just in awe that prisoners could produce such fine, beautiful work, and I could see that it was such a great form of expression for them. From that moment, I knew that I wanted to be involved with teaching prisoners stitching and support them in their rehabilitation in some way. When the opportunity came up to be a mentor at Fine Cell Work's Battersea hub, I knew it was going to be my chance to help individuals and really make a difference. 

What do you find most rewarding about your role?

Being in this role has been so rewarding. I’ve seen my current mentee really grow in confidence and this has really helped her with so many things. She’s now able to confidently travel to London, she’s able to go out and enjoy walks and take care of her physical health, and she’s also started her third OCN course in embroidery - and has been enthusiastic and excited to get started. She is also considering joining a sewing group local to her as a way of making friends with similar interests.

What do you find most challenging about your role?

I have been really lucky in that my mentee has taken on board everything I’ve said, and made such positive progress. There have been challenges for her in that, due to probation officer absence, some things haven’t been able to happen as fast as we would like. I guess that is all part of the judicial system, which can often be slow and frustrating. I also know it’s going to be sad saying goodbye to my current mentee, as I’ve gotten to know her really well. However, I will feel happy that I’ve given her the support when she’s needed it most, and the skills and belief to go out in the world. I will look forward to working with other apprentices in due course, and supporting them too. 

What has volunteering at Fine Cell Work given you?

Volunteering at Fine Cell Work has been such a fantastic experience. I’ve loved having the opportunity to see the workshop at the Hub, and to meet some of the apprentices and see their stitching in action. I’ve also loved meeting other volunteers, and hearing about their experiences of mentoring and going into prisons to teach stitching. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed attending events such as the Christmas Fair and the Volunteer Lunch, and feeling a sense of belonging to a very special charity. But most of all, knowing that I’m directly supporting apprentices to get back on a positive path, to a life filled with purpose and meaning, has been very humbling.

The theme of this year's Volunteers' Week is 'uniquely us'. In your mind, what's the most unique thing about volunteering with Fine Cell Work?

Fine Cell Work really is a special charity. It enables new skills, purpose, and a sense of belonging and belief to those who may never have experienced these things before. Prisoners are trained to complete highly skilled textile pieces, filled with beauty and precision, in the most unlikely of places. It is testament to the wonderful volunteers who work with and teach them - it really is an extraordinary and unique charity.

What would you say to someone who's considering volunteering with Fine Cell Work?

I would say 'do it'! I can honestly say I’ve felt so valued, and I’ve been given sufficient training and support to be a Fine Cell Work mentor. It’s been a pleasure to work with my current apprentice, and I look forward to supporting other apprentices in the future. It’s a very rewarding role and for me, the commitment level is just right. Enough for me to make a worthwhile contribution, but not too much of a time commitment that it’s unmanageable. I would recommend it to anyone to believes in the rehabilitative power of stitch, and who enjoys working with people from all walks of life. 

It’s an incredibly rewarding experience, go for it!


Sarah Ashford is a modern quilter, teacher and wellness coach. She’s the author of two quilting books, and has had four thread collections with Aurifil thread. She writes for publications including Take a Break, Today’s Quilter and Make Modern Magazine and her Sew With Me range is available in Home Bargains stores throughout the UK. 


Learn more about volunteering with Fine Cell Work here.
Learn more about Volunteers' Week here.
Read an interview with another Fine Cell Work volunteer, Leah Jensen, here.



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