Judy's Story

When you lose someone so close to you, there’s a big space. It’s the same world, but the reality is different; you have to make adjustments to fill your time. When my son Jawara Gray passed away from cancer three years ago, I was in bits, and I needed to fill that space.

I was at an event and Hestia had a stand there. They were looking for volunteers for the Ealing Hospital Discharge service and I signed up immediately. It meant I could help someone else and take the focus off me.

I’ve met so many people through the service. It’s just about helping someone to the bank or to the post office – it’s about being a person really. Volunteering really became a lifeline to me and has had a big impact at numerous points in my life.

See, in 1989, two major things happened. I gave birth to my daughter, and two weeks after that, my first son Simon Senior died. He was 20 years old and one of Britain’s first black models. He died in the Marchioness disaster on the Thames. After that my whole life changed. From then on, I said to myself that everything I do would be dedicated to his memory. A year later, I went to university and got a degree in English.

Soon after, I got a job working for the Commission for Racial Equality. It was the first time I was exposed to people’s desire to learn English. I started volunteering with the housing trust on the estate I lived on – there were a number of Somalian people living there with language as a big barrier. I wanted to ensure they had representation, and so I taught them English. The rest is history.

The demand grew, and I had to rent a space to teach full time. It’s 20 years on now and I’ve worked with colleges and set up my own international language school and my own training company for marginalised people wanting to learn English. I made the process fun and welcoming for people; they were coming to us with issues around children, health and housing, so it was important for us to break down that language barrier with a caring disposition.

I’m now 69, have sold the school and training company, and I’ve retired.

About a year ago, I was at a Hestia training event and was told about the Phoenix Project, which provides long-term support to survivors of modern slavery. I thought the project must involve teaching English, and I had a light bulb moment.

I wanted to put my skills to use, so I got involved. I now run a weekly English session for a group of women in the project and I love it very much. I teach them vocabulary they’ll need around children, shopping and health. I look forward to Mondays and coming into London to see them, seeing the joy on their faces as the learning happens and when they feel confident enough to speak. I get to see these new beginnings happening.

There was one lady who was so shy that she’d cry when she came to the group. I managed to empower her to contribute by speaking with her and using her name. It’s about reassurance, it can be small but it makes people know they’re worth it. After the classes, I head to Brixton for a glass of wine with my friends. My Mondays are absolutely perfect.

Volunteering has been a cycle, where I help people but they are unknowingly helping me.

After spending the 1970s in Jamaica and my marriage ending while I was there, I came back to London in 1987 with my children and nothing else. I feel honoured that despite tragedies, I’ve managed to go from having nothing to having the school and helping people.

I don’t know when the sadness went away but one day, it happened, and I realised I was happy.

I have my children, my grandchildren and my great grandchildren by my side, and the most recent addition to our family was born just three weeks ago.

I’m a Christian, and I don’t believe the grave is the final destination. I hold on to that firmly. I know I’ll meet my sons again.

I’m enjoying life. I’m still a homemaker, a teacher, a Christian, a friend, a volunteer. I’m still Judy from the block.

Which book has impacted me the most?

The Bible. It is the living, active word of God and has helped and guided me through life. Dipping into it regularly gives me wisdom and the strength to live at peace with everyone.

Which film has impacted me the most?

Shawshank Redemption. It shows you that no matter how deep in doo-doo life can get, as long as you’re prepared to walk through it, you can get out.

Which song has impacted me the most?

Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds. “Don’t worry about a ‘ting, cause every little thing is gonna be alright”! It’s how I feel about life.

Volunteer with our Phoenix Project today