For this month’s volunteer spotlight, we spoke with Odile who has been volunteering for Cambridge City Foodbank for around seven years, and David who first joined the Chesterton team two years ago, before moving to the St Paul’s Monday team at the start of the pandemic. Odile and David discuss the importance of creating a non-judgemental space and share how they are constantly overwhelmed by the kindness, good humour and gratitude of the Foodbank’s visitors.
What inspired you to get involved with volunteering for the Foodbank?
Odile: “I started out volunteering with the warehouse team – I took early retirement from teaching and wanted to engage in volunteering in my spare time. I knew I either wanted to help children or to do something with food, as food is very important to my family and life – so the Foodbank seemed to fit well.
“With a year under my belt in the warehouse team, I decided I needed a role that was less physically demanding and, missing the interaction I got from teaching, I also wanted a role that was more people facing. So, I moved over to the St Paul’s team, volunteering on a Monday, and have been there ever since.”
David: “Like Odile, I started my volunteering journey upon retirement. It is unacceptable to me that there are people who face such hardship in our city, and if more fortunate people like myself can do anything to help alleviate any of that struggle, it’s definitely worth doing. I think it’s important that in a place like Cambridge, where there are so many prosperous people, those feeling the pinch shouldn’t feel abandoned. More so in Cambridge than most places, there can be a feeling of being left behind.”
What is a session like at St Paul’s?
Odile: “I think my fellow volunteers would agree that there is no such thing as a typical session at St Paul’s – it can be so unpredictable! Some weeks, it gets very, very busy, with lots of people visiting all at once, whereas sometimes there is hardly anyone there. Other times it is really busy within the first hour, but then quiet for the rest of the session. We can’t seem to work out a pattern, but we see that as a good thing, it keeps us on our toes and is always interesting!”
What has been the highlight of your time volunteering for the Foodbank?
Odile: “I’m not sure you can call it a highlight as such, but I was surprised and delighted by the good of people during the pandemic. Of course, Covid-19 changed things drastically and we are just now slowly going back to the way the Foodbank was before. Due to the restrictions, we were limited in how much interaction we could have with visitors and what we could offer – as volunteers we didn’t like it, but it’s what we had to do to keep going. What was amazing was how accepting our visitors were; although they couldn’t swap items in their parcel and they couldn’t stop and have a drink and a chat, everybody just accepted it.
“You see and read in the news all the time about the abuse that workers and volunteers receive but we just don’t have any of that. Everyone is always so nice – whether it’s a regular or someone I’ve not seen before, everyone is nice, polite and grateful – although they don’t need to be grateful at all!”
David: “Things were very different at the start of the pandemic and we were extremely limited in the amount of contact we could have with people, and, fundamentally, the extent to which we could brighten their day. As things started opening up again, a highlight for me was the small touches offered by members of the community that made such a big impact for our visitors. For example, when the Pret-a-Manger by Cambridge Station was reopening but for limited hours, the team would always donate any unsold produce to us at 3pm for the start of our session. This gave our visitors a wonderful choice of salads and sandwiches!
“We also receive things like flowers and other fresh items from members of the community – these really help to give our visitors an extra surprise and the visitors are always so, so grateful for it! No one abuses the system, they come to us when they need us; this really shows in people’s reactions to receiving a gift.”
What is the biggest challenge you face?
Odile: “We are quite limited with storage in the church, so this requires a lot of careful stacking and good communication with our delivery team too! Communication generally with other areas of the Foodbank is something that has improved recently – I think it’s so important that everyone knows what other volunteers’ and centres’ roles are so we can all support each other most efficiently.”
David: “One of the biggest challenges for me is helping our visitors and the wider community understand that the Foodbank is a non-judgemental space. We are there to provide support – and not in a patronising way. We understand that we could easily be in their position; it doesn’t take much to push someone into trouble.”
What has made you laugh when volunteering?
Odile: “Again, it’s our visitors. Considering most people come to us in a time of crisis, I am always amazed by their good sense of humour. Although their lives are difficult and chaotic, they can still have a laugh. I don’t know if I could be that strong if I was in their shoes. It’s always fun talking to our visitors; many have interesting jobs or stories to share, and have travelled to countries around the world.”
What has made you upset while volunteering?
Odile: “We had a woman come in recently with a five-week-old baby. This really hit home with me as I have a new granddaughter and it’s just not right for a new mother to find herself in this position.
“Another time, we had a young woman and her child visit the Foodbank. She had escaped an abusive relationship and had been rehoused, but she had no furniture and hadn’t been told what to do about it – this really brought me to tears.”
David: “Like Odile, I am constantly shocked by the way people’s lives have been upset. I will occasionally take food round for people who cannot transport it themselves and from this you often discover an unseen need across our city. I think it’s going to be a tough winter for a lot of people, and, although the immediate COVID-19 crisis may be coming to an end, there is still an ongoing and possibly growing crisis in terms of people’s needs and food requirements.”
Where would you like to see the Foodbank in 12 months’ time?
Odile: “Of course, I would love it if we didn’t have to exist. But realistically, I would love it if we were less in demand. While the number of people visiting us seems to remain consistent, I have noticed changes in the types of people who visit us over the past seven years. For example, we used to get a lot of young people, particularly young men aged 19 and 20, but we don’t tend to see them as much anymore, which makes me think there is another support network out there to help them. Similarly, we don’t see as many pregnant women, so there must be something in place which catches them before they get to us.”
David: “In 12 months’ time I would love for the Foodbank to be as much a meeting place and a social space, as it is a place to provide food. Mental health issues play such a big role in many people’s struggles and so I think it is so important we have the opportunity to engage with people, providing them with tranquillity and calm, and a space where they don’t feel under pressure from the rest of the world. A place where they can converse without judgement and not feel self-conscious about the rest of society’s perception of them.”