Manu Robert, volunteer profile

In previous newsletters, we have used this slot as an opportunity to profile our trustees, distribution centers and long-serving volunteers at Cambridge City Foodbank. In a slight change, this month we spoke to a volunteer who has been with us for little under a year… Read on to hear the thoughts of Cambridge University PHD student, President of the Cambridge Swiss Society, and regular Foodbank volunteer, Manu (Emmanuel) Robert.

Can you tell us about your background?

I’m originally from Switzerland, and I’m still relatively new to Cambridge and to the UK. I come from the French side of Switzerland, from a small city by the lake called Lausanne, and studied in my home country up to PHD level. I moved to Cambridge in 2021 to study at the University and started my thesis in Political Theory. My PHD focusses on psycho-politics and the unconscious and certainly uses too much Sigmund Freud to get my argument across. Also, I am very lucky to do all of that at Emmanuel College in the heart of Cambridge – and yes, I (narcissistically) chose the college because of my first name!

When, why, and how did you first start volunteering at the Foodbank?

I first joined the Foodbank as a volunteer in April 2022. After two great terms of studying and socialising, I decided it was time to do something more. I have previously volunteered at other organisations both back home in Switzerland and also in Cairo, Egypt, where I was learning Arabic at the time.

When I first moved to Cambridge, I was very fortunate to meet my friend Toby Payne. He was also studying at Emmanuel College and was volunteering with the Foodbank at St. Pauls. He recognised the enjoyment I got out of talking to others and encouraged me to try volunteering alongside him. He put me in contact with the Foodbank and I’ve been helping out ever since.

I feel very lucky to study in the UK and, in particular, Cambridge and volunteering with the Foodbank is a great way for me to give back to the local community. I have a lot of energy and I love the fact that I’m able to share this with the visitors of the Foodbank. It’s also a great way for me to remember that there is more to life than a PHD and academia! It helps me to stay anchored and reminds me once a week of the things that are really important in life.

What are your roles and responsibilities at the Foodbank?

Each Friday evening, I welcome the Foodbank visitors and distribute their boxes of food but, most importantly, I’m there to talk. I believe that it is important for all humans to be able to share their fears, anxieties or even just their own experiences with other people, and I very much enjoy listening to the visitors. During my time at the Foodbank, I feel that both the visitors and the volunteers really get something great out of the experience. The visitors receive emergency food support but the volunteers get to hear some incredible stories which are extremely grounding.

Do you have a favourite moment from your time with the Foodbank?

It is difficult for me to single out one specific moment as I get to speak with some great people every time I volunteer with the Foodbank. I’ve heard some incredible stories of resilience from our visitors and, generally speaking, I feel inspired after my volunteering sessions. The Foodbank provides me with the opportunity to take a step back and really appreciate the humanity of different individuals, and to witness their resignation first hand, while also helping me be more introspective about the privilege that I have.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not volunteering with the Foodbank?

I’m currently writing a work of fiction in my spare time that tries to see the poetry and beauty of ‘simple’ jobs and social roles, which are sometimes overlooked by the general public. I’m also the President of the Cambridge Swiss Society, although I’m not President because I’m important – I’m President because no one else wanted to be! Other than that, I really enjoy feeling connected to nature, especially when it’s hilly, and I love hiking in the mountains back home in Switzerland. Out of all the magical places, I definitely have to mention the Engadin Valley. Check it out!

If there is someone out there at university that’s considering volunteering for the first time, or looking at volunteering again after some time off, what would your message be to them?

I would definitely recommend volunteering with Cambridge City Foodbank! While living in Cambridge, and particularly within the social spheres of the University, it is easy to forget about what is fundamentally important in life. Volunteering with the Foodbank provides an opportunity to do something great that occasionally puts a smile on the face of both the person receiving support and the person giving it. The team is amazing and everyone has this incredible capacity to have both high-level discussions and to communicate in a very forthright, amicable and effective way. I know that perhaps I’m getting a bit to philosophical, but to put it simply – join up! You won’t regret it.