Delivered in partnership with the Reading Agency, the reading befriending programme brings people together to read, share stories, meet new friends and have fun.
The library service is seeking volunteers who enjoy reading and would like to help tackle loneliness in their community to set up more Reading Friends groups.
Volunteers use reading, including books, magazines and newspapers, to start a conversation and encourage participants to chat and feel less isolated.
Groups currently meet at Eastbourne, Hastings and Seaford libraries, and volunteers also visit housebound residents through the Home Library Services to deliver reading materials and chat.
Jane and Ruby began helping to run the Hastings Reading Friends group earlier this year.
Jane was a library volunteer before the pandemic and when volunteering started up again, felt Reading Friends would be a good way to use her skills and experience to help others.
She said: “I love books and libraries, and I liked the idea of getting people talking and helping them reconnect with their community through reading.”
Ruby started volunteering after moving to Hastings late last year. She said: “We moved in the depths of winter, which is not an easy time meet people and get involved in the community.
“I was keen to do voluntary work as I had regular time each week to give to a project. I love reading and wanted to do something that was community based, so Hastings Voluntary Action put me in touch with the library and Reading Friends seemed the perfect fit.”
Groups read all sorts of reading materials, from song lyrics and short stories to poems and novels, but people don’t have to read anything before or at the session and everyone is welcome.
Jane continued: “Each week, Ruby and I choose a couple of extracts from the book we are reading to shape the starting point but it doesn’t matter if people haven’t read the book or it’s their first visit.
“Our discussions often take a fascinating, meandering journey to something else, and that’s part of the appeal – there’s no agenda. It’s all about the conversation.”
Ruby added: “The participants have huge input and colour how the session is going to go and what the conversation is going to become. You can never predict where the conversation ends up, which is the magic of it.”
Groups can be set up in any East Sussex library. Volunteers are vital to the success of the scheme, and help and support is available to anyone who would like to establish a Reading Friends group.
Ruby explained there are many reasons why people should consider volunteering: “On a practical level it’s an excellent opportunity to learn transferable skills, and running a group is a great way to meet people in your community. After the last two years, it feels wonderful to be doing something with others that is fun, and it’s lovely to spend an hour laughing and chatting.”
Jane said: “I would encourage anyone who enjoys reading and would like to help others to think about volunteering. Or if the time isn’t right to volunteer, then just come along and join in the conversation.”
Cllr Dowling, lead member for transport and the environment, said: “The Reading Friends scheme is a great initiative that brings people together, in libraries and other locations, helping to tackle social isolation through the power of reading.
“Reading Friends is a great way to meet new people in your community and by volunteering, residents can really make a difference to people’s lives through sharing stories and socialising.”
People can apply to be a volunteer online at https://www.eastsussex.gov.uk/libraries/local/library-volunteers/volunteer-form.
For more information about Reading Friends, how to join a group or sign up to the Home Library Service visit www.eastsussex.gov.uk/readingfriends