Volunteers' Week 2019 runs from 1 - 7 June

Written by Gayle Lowery-Jones, Director of Operations at Hestia

It has been said that doing something kind, like giving your time to others, is the best gift people can give.

However, I would say that the experience I gained as a volunteer gave me so much in return that it led me to understand what I really wanted to do with my life.

At 18 years old I went to university to study psychology, not really sure of what I wanted to ‘do’ other than being really interested in working with people.

My course included a one year placement which I undertook with Hampshire Youth Justice, working with young offenders and supporting them to reduce their reoffending. During my year, I picked up a book from a Charity Shop called ‘Bury me in my Boots’ by a Social Worker called Sally Trench who supported homeless people in Central London.

She was part of The Simon Community, a small independent charity living and working together with homeless people to help them to rebuild their lives. Her book utterly inspired me, slightly terrified me and also brought out compassion I was not really aware of, for people who had real struggles in their lives.

After graduation, I decided that I wanted to be a Probation Officer, due to my placement with the young offenders and in order to get onto the course I wanted, I needed more experience of working alongside ‘vulnerable people.’

In the summer of 1998, I packed a bag and headed to London to join The Simon Community as full time volunteer – this meant living alongside homeless people in a nightshelter, second stage houses (including a farm in Kent with most vicious geese you could ever encounter) and carrying out street outreach and home visits to people who had been resettled.

We lived within community for 6 days per week and had one day off a week. There were no paid staff, everyone was a volunteer to some degree, even those currently benefitting from the support of the community.

The experiences I gained through volunteering absolutely changed my life and my direction, as I soon forgot about further study and immersed myself in actual experience of living day to day in a community of people.

My mentor when I got to ‘Community’, was a current homeless man, a regular user of the nightshelter who always returned to street life. He taught me so much about the routines and practises in the Community, why things were done the way that they were and who the people in the know were. To be honest, all the people in the know were current or ex-homeless people who were also formally or informally volunteering.

It was from volunteering with the Community that I really recognised the immense assets and what a great resources the people who use the services and those who offer their time to volunteer were, regardless of their personal circumstances.

I drove tea runs in a huge battered van, (which had wooden benches down the side of the back rather than any proper seats and certainly no seat belts) across London starting out from the Nightshelter at 04:30 in the morning, soup and stew runs late at night and was always accompanied by a current homeless person or ex-homeless volunteer. They would made sure we hit every single one of our drop off points on time and would always be out on the streets at each point, ensuring that everyone knew we were there, and could get some hot food and drink.

Having never cooked a full Christmas dinner before, the following Christmas I found myself in charge of catering for 200 people, mainly homeless people who had nowhere to go and no family to be with on Christmas day – along with many other volunteers, I stayed up all night on Christmas Eve, rotating turkeys in the relatively small oven!

Christmas day saw an outpouring of volunteers from the local community, church groups and, of course, the ex-homeless volunteers who wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else on Christmas Day.

We walked from Kings Cross, to the Simon Farm in Wye just outside Canterbury every year to fundraise. Around 75% of people walking were current or ex service users who showed the most remarkable determination and resilience to ‘do their bit.’

I watched a man willing to attempt the 80 mile walk with shoes held together with sellotape, needless to say we found him a much better pair in the donated clothes store, but the determination was inspirational.

Although I always intended to use my experience in Community to help me get on my academic course, what I very quickly learned is that my experience of living alongside people who were effectively excluded from society was the biggest reward and the most amazing experience. It was there that I literally watched people’ trying change,’ taking positive risks and doing things which brought them a sense of belonging and self-esteem. It was there that I genuinely learned about relationships, and how two people from seemingly opposite walks of life, can have more in common that you could ever imagine.

I talk about the benefits of volunteers every time I meet new staff at Hestia’s Central Induction, and I believe that we should thank every single person who volunteers with Hestia, every single day – we would not be the same organisation without our amazing volunteers and we should also remember that we should be doing everything we can to make the experience as wonderful and enriching for them as possible. Who knows where their experiences might take them?

I aimed to volunteered for Community for 12 months. I stayed for 2 ½ years and ended up as a Community Leader working directly to the Board of Trustees but effectively helping to run the community on a day to day basis. The people who always had my ear, were of course the people who came to have a bed at the nightshelter or moved on to one of the houses, or their own accommodation, who really knew what was needed and who were always there, lending a hand to make sure others had what they needed.

Community taught me a huge life lesson, it prepared me for paid employment and because I spent so much time, volunteering in Community, my learning curve was exponential.

I owe so much to volunteering and I genuinely believe that without the experience, skills and confidence that volunteering has given me, I would not be in the job I’m in today.  

Help to celebrate your volunteers this week for Hestia’s Volunteering Week!

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