For this month’s volunteer spotlight, we headed (virtually) to our Chesterton centre to speak with Jean, who has been volunteering for six years, and Helen , another Chesterton volunteer who also supports our warehouse team. Hear from Helen and Jean about how their time volunteering has sparked personal reflection and provided crucial lessons, and how every volunteer works hard to create a warm, open and judgement-free environment:
When did you first start volunteering at the Chesterton centre and what initially inspired you to get involved?
Helen: “I started helping at Chesterton foodbank in August 2018 after retiring from 30 years in the NHS. I wanted to continue to do something useful in retirement and having issued foodbank vouchers for patients whilst I was working, I felt it was time to help out.”
Jean: “Like Helen, I had also recently retired when I started volunteering at the Chesterton foodbank around six years ago. I was looking for something productive to do with my time and was drawn to the foodbank in some way. I felt somewhat ambivalent at first, and I don’t think I am alone in this feeling. Of course, we want to help people in need but, in reality, I do not want there to be a need for a foodbank at all.
“While volunteering, I came to reflect a lot about my mother and her childhood. She had grown up in poverty and her older brother sadly passed away due to malnutrition when he was young. While I didn’t initially realise this part of my history was drawing me to the foodbank, I do think this is a big personal motivator for me in volunteering.”
What has been the true highlight of your time volunteering at Chesterton foodbank?
Helen: “It’s a cliche but every day really is different and we never know who we are going to see. We used to have a toddler singing group in the church where the centre is, taking place at the same time as the foodbank, and I thoroughly enjoyed joining in with “Alice the Camel”; even if my colleagues found my singing somewhat less than enjoyable!”
Jean: “What makes volunteering great for me is the team I work with. When you’re retired it’s fantastic to be able to go out and do something meaningful, in the company of like-minded people who share your values. I have enjoyed getting to know my fellow volunteers; Chesterton has a great team.”
And the biggest challenge?
Helen: “It’s been difficult in COVID times to not allow people into the building – I feel that we have lost a lot in not sitting down with people, sharing a hot drink and talking together. I’ve always felt that the foodbank is about so much more than just providing food and am very much looking forward to things becoming more relaxed.”
Jean: “There are challenges every day in terms of managing our emotions, while ensuring we create an atmosphere for visitors that is natural and friendly. Before COVID-19 restrictions, we would often have visitors coming in who would want to hug us and shake our hands, thanking us for “treating them like human beings.” This is very generous feedback, but it is heart breaking that they have not been respected and treated this way elsewhere.
“People can be in desperate situations and they are often wary of us as volunteers. We have to try hard to create a warm environment. As Helen mentioned, pre-COVID, we were able to offer cups of tea and biscuits to our visitors and have a chat, or just have a laugh and not focus on their crisis for a minute – I hope we can get back to that soon.”
What has made you laugh while volunteering?
Jean: “Most of the time I find I am laughing at myself! Whether I am getting annoyed at the iPad, when actually I just haven’t turned it on, or I am struggling to fold up a table, we are always having a laugh – it’s not all doom and gloom!”
And what has surprised you?
Jean: “I am constantly surprised by human nature, but perhaps I am too pessimistic! I have certainly learnt throughout my time volunteering to not make assumptions about people, whether they are a visitor or someone donating. At Chesterton foodbank we are fortunate to have an ‘extras’ table where people can pick from a range of surplus items to take home with them. People are incredibly reserved, and we have to really encourage them to even pick up one item!
“When it comes to the public, you never know how people will surprise you. We run a number of big collections throughout the year at the large supermarkets. The team and I go and stand in the reception of Tesco to hand out lists of items, encouraging members of the public to pick up a few items in their shop. We are told to approach everyone but, to start with, I naturally found myself missing people out as I assumed they wouldn’t be interested. I built up the courage to stop a young professional who seemed in a rush to get his lunch and, while he appeared disinterested at first, he actually did come back with a full bag of items to donate. From then on, I have tried to never make assumptions about people and their behaviour.”
Where would you like to see the Chesterton centre in 12 months’ time?
Helen: “As I know many of my fellow volunteers have also stated, in an ideal world I’d like to see all foodbanks redundant in 12 months’ time. I’d like to think that we can create a more equal world where everyone has access to basic daily needs. Realistically, I know we are a very long way from that, so I’d like to see us continuing to do what we can to offer help, support and hospitality to our visitors.”
Jean: “Like Helen says, I would love to see a big change where only the tiny minority of people need help accessing food, making Cambridge City Foodbank redundant. But, we will be here as long as people need us and I believe the structure of the Trussel Trust is crucial for making this change happen. The data we are able to collect and provide on people and their circumstances is vital evidence to showcase to the government what work needs to be done. I hope we can continue to provide the information that will lead to positive change.”
What advice would you give to someone volunteering for the first time?
Jean: “We are all friendly, there is a cooperative spirit and a shared sense of wanting to help people in crisis.”
What advice would you give to someone using a foodbank for the first time?
Helen: “To anyone using a foodbank for the first time or indeed volunteering for the first time, I’d say don’t worry, just come. There is no need to be anxious, we’re just people too.”
Jean: “Everyone who volunteers or works at Cambridge City Foodbank thinks “that could me, and could have been me at many points in my life”. As such, there is never cause for shame, we are there to help and do not judge.”