By Natalie Cernuschi
I worked at Citizens Advice Wokingham (CAW) for 10 months as a Debt Adviser, joining in response to the increase in demand for debt advice resulting from the pandemic.
Prior to working at CAW, I was a paralegal and I am due to start my training contract at Bevan Brittan LLP in September.
What I enjoyed
Working at CAW was eye opening, engaging and rewarding. Although I grew up in Wokingham, I naively failed to realise the harsh conditions and struggle with finances many people in the area currently live in and endure.
To experience first-hand the impact the charity has had on the community through its independent, impartial and free advice was extremely gratifying and I was proud to be a part of the team.
Despite working remotely throughout my contract, I was welcomed by both staff and volunteers and immediately felt a sense of belonging as the team was friendly, supportive and encouraging.
It was refreshing to witness an entirely committed and hardworking group of people who are not afraid to share their opinions and beliefs for the benefit of the community and society as a whole.
The Debt Team was especially helpful and regardless of the pressures resulting from a demanding workload they were willing to answer any questions I had and provide assistance where necessary. This demonstrated a strong and highly motivated team.
In just a few months, I developed the skills and confidence to understand a client’s financial situation, explain ways of maximising their income and reducing expenditure, and identify suitable options.
I thoroughly enjoyed the work at CAW and looked forward to each day, the range of unexpected challenges and distinctiveness of each case fuelling my motivation.
Although I predominantly worked within the Debt Team, it became clear that client issues frequently encroached on other areas and therefore I was fortunate to learn about a variety of sectors including benefits, housing and mental health.
It was important for me to apply my skills and exceed expectations so that I could achieve notable results during my time at CAW.
I expressed my willingness to further contribute by participating in campaigns and training that were available to me.
I was grateful to be asked to present two training sessions on the COVID Winter Grant Scheme and New Debt Advice Process, areas I had dedicated a great deal of time towards and felt passionate about.
I can report the presentations were a success and I received positive feedback from my peers.
CAW presented me with additional opportunities including Mental Health First Aider training conducted by the chief executive, Jake Morrison.
The course provided me with the knowledge and understanding to recognise the early signs of mental ill health and support a person appropriately both personally and in the workplace. It was a huge achievement to be able to raise awareness and tackle the stigma of mental ill health alongside many others on the course.
I worked with numerous clients consistently during my time at CAW which resulted in strong, trustworthy relationships and a close rapport. I believe this helped me to achieve good outcomes and in some cases, to offer clients a new beginning.
In my final two weeks I was successful in securing three approved Debt Relief Orders (DROs) and one approved Bankruptcy by the Insolvency Service. In addition, all applicable fees were donated by a local charity following favourable applications. In total, just under £86,000 of debt was written off for clients who had been in vulnerable and difficult situations due to their low income and individual circumstances.
Writing off debt through the use of formal insolvency options is a serious yet positive solution as it enables clients to make a fresh start, begin to pay their bills on time and learn to effectively budget, therefore avoiding getting into debt again.
The responses and gratitude I received from clients highlighted this and was extremely fulfilling.
The bankruptcy client, in particular, had a difficult time with her long-term partner passing away and being unable to work due to her own health conditions.
She was unfortunately left with a significant amount of debt and was required to live on benefits for the first time in her life. The debt was a huge burden on the client and bankruptcy was a positive step to improving her quality of life and enabling her to manage her finances without debt repayments.
I achieved a more unexpected outcome in a case where a client was innocently scammed into his vehicle being taken away for scrapping and subsequent
parking offences totalling just over £5,000 being later committed in his name.
The client was taken to court but I was able to use my effective communication skills for the purposes of negotiation.
Following a statement and submission of evidence, the claimant cancelled the charges and agreed to take no further action. This was a huge relief for the client.
Overall, my experience at CAW was unforgettable. I would highly recommend others to join either as a staff member or volunteer, especially if like me you are passionate about helping those most in need.
Citizens Advice Wokingham in particular was a rare find for me as it was a mixture of great people, great work and great culture and I am therefore extremely grateful for the opportunity I was given.