Volunteering in Essex: How it can benefits others and you
PUBLISHED: 11:11 30 June 2020 | UPDATED: 11:11 30 June 2020
June 1 to 7 marked Volunteers’ Week and there has never been a more appropriate time to celebrate and thank those that contribute so much in our county. Alison Dewar talks to six volunteers and hears how ‘giving back’ has also benefited them
It’s estimated that there are some 10,000 voluntary organisations throughout Essex – all supported by those who give their time freely for a host of good causes.
From practical support such as cooking and gardening for those in need or raising money by organising fetes and fairs; to sharing skills, donating time and expertise; or becoming a trustee; these are the unsung heroes of our communities.
The devastating impact of Covid-19 has hit charities hard. Fundraising events have been cancelled, charity shops closed and many operations have been in lockdown, with activities kept to a bare minimum, if running at all.
Some have turned to social media to maintain a public profile and keep in touch with those they help, but there’s no doubt that all charities will have to dig deep in the weeks and months to come.
As everyday life starts to return to some sense of normality, the support of existing volunteers will be more important than ever, while the drive to engage with new supporters and sponsors will intensify.
There are many famous quotes about the healing power of animals and three volunteers at Danaher Animal Home at Wethersfield, near Braintree, know better than most the truth behind those sayings.
Jenny Davison, Tracey Bentley and Lindsey Cox have each faced serious health challenges and they are firm believers that the animals they help care for have supported them on the road to recovery.
Former physiotherapist Jenny, from Sible Hedingham, had breast cancer five years ago and after nine months of treatment decided she wanted to give something back.
She volunteers at Danaher as a dog walker, enjoys doing enrichment activities with the dogs to keep them engaged and help reduce their stress levels, and has even adopted her own rescue dog, Bonnie, from the centre.
‘At the beginning, I thought about the cancer constantly and was always worried it would come back. Spending time with the dogs helps me forget about that and there’s no doubt they have helped me to heal both physically and emotionally. I love spending time with them, volunteering here gave me a direction and a focus when I needed it most,’ Jenny explains.
Recently Jenny worked alongside fellow volunteer Tracey, and Tracey’s husband Andy, to refurbish a caravan donated to the charity, which now acts as a cosy and safe place for dogs to chill out away from the stress of kennels.
Tracey, who lives in Goldhanger, has had treatment for bowel cancer and is awaiting further surgery. She volunteers three days a week. ‘I wanted to give something back and being here is so therapeutic,’ she says.
‘In the first few months I used to cuddle the dogs and ball my eyes out. Everyone is amazing, especially Jenny. We’ve been there for each other and when you have someone else who knows what you have been through with the chemotherapy, it makes such a difference.’
Fellow volunteer Lindsey, from Dunmow, had a brain tumour removed seven years ago and was, in her own words ‘very poorly’. Following her recovery, she started volunteering for different charities and joined the Danaher team a year ago.
‘I love it here, the staff and all the volunteers are fantastic, you see the dogs come in very shy and quiet, and after a few months their characters start to come out,’ says the retired police officer.
‘We are exercising and doing something which helps our mental health, with the added bonus of knowing we are helping all the dogs, getting them out of the kennel and helping with their overall wellbeing too.’
Deborah Satchell is CEO of Danaher Animal Home. She explains how important these volunteers are to the charity’s work, even more so after the Covid-19 outbreak.
‘The impact of the coronavirus on ourselves and all charities is enormous. The summer months are our prime fundraising times and those events have been cancelled, our charity shops have been closed and all our volunteers have had to be stood down.
‘Thanks to a loyal team of staff living on site, we have been managing the welfare needs of all our current animals, but of course, we are unable to carry out rehoming at present.
‘We are very worried about our future and how this will affect our ability to look after animals in need. Now, more than ever, all charities need extra support and I know it will be gratefully received.’
It all adds up
20 years ago, recently retired banking professional Andrew Clarke was invited in for a cup of tea with the then CEO of Essex Community Foundation (ECF). Now Andrew spends three days a week in the de facto role of grants officer, helping assess applications from a myriad of different voluntary and community organisations and individuals across the county.
As an independent charitable trust, ECF’s remit is to help improve the quality of people’s lives by investing and distributing funds on behalf of a wide range of donors, and Andrew’s financial expertise makes him the perfect fit.
‘Before I retired I was based in Chelmsford, working in agricultural banking, and got to know the ECF team, so when I was invited in for a chat I didn’t think twice,’ says Andrew. ‘It’s an organisation I believe in very strongly. For me, it’s a very positive opportunity and it certainly keeps my brain active.
‘I am treated as part of the team and I really appreciate being able to use my experience. We try to keep the grant application process as straightforward as possible, but often there’s a need to pick up the phone to find out more information and help people with the paperwork.
‘It’s incredibly satisfying to see the difference it makes when a grant comes through, the best part is getting out and about to visit different projects. I jump at the chance to meet the beneficiaries and hear their stories, and I never cease to be impressed by the work people do in changing lives for the better. They never ask for recognition and it can be quite humbling.’
Andrew’s professional background means he also gets involved in wider areas of ECF’s work, including project management, reviewing complicated legal documents and property issues.
He concludes: ‘It’s really interesting to be able to look back at your career and think how your experiences can help others. I don’t consciously see it as giving back. For me it is about playing a part in a team effort to help those who need support.’
A chance to grow
Debbie Graham is passionate about mental health and, after taking voluntary redundancy from her career in human resources in London, she was looking for a role that could combine her interest with her second love of gardening.
Through the Southend Association of Voluntary Services (SAVS), she came across Trust Links, an independent local charity for mental health and wellbeing.
It provides support to more than 1,500 people a year across Southend, Rochford and Castle Point; offering therapeutic gardening, recovery classes, employment training and social activities for those living with mental health conditions, unpaid carers and other members of the community.
Debbie says: ‘Trust Links really spoke to me. I used to get quite anxious in my old job and it wasn’t until I joined Trust Links that I realised just how anxiety had affected me. I didn’t talk about it before, but here we are encouraged to speak openly about our mental health.
‘It’s good to be able to say, “This is how I feel,” to know it’s OK to be that way and realise other people may be struggling too.’
Debbie, who lives in Southend on Sea, has been a Trust Links volunteer for seven years, spending at least a day a week at its therapeutic garden in Westcliff, one of four gardening projects. Her role includes helping the Trust Links members with jobs such as sowing seeds, planting, tending the chickens and getting involved in various crafting activities.
‘Everything we do is about our Trust Links members and making sure the garden is a safe haven for them,’ says Debbie.
‘This is a very nurturing environment; our members can do as much or as little as they want. I get so much pleasure from seeing their passion for gardening develop and, after spending years working in an office, it’s lovely to work outside – even on a cold February day!’
During the coronavirus lockdown, the Trust Links team is working hard to stay in touch with members, while hosting activities including poetry readings, workshops and quizzes via its Facebook page.
Community hub provides a boost for all ages
At Parkeston, near Harwich, Bill Davidson and his team of volunteers have spent the last five years transforming village life for young and old people.
The jewel-in-the-crown is now the Parkeston hub, used for a range of community activities including a dining club for the elderly, a knitting club plus changing rooms for teams using the adjacent football pitch and training ground.
A parish, district and town councilor, Bill began volunteering after he retired five-years-ago. He explains: ‘I had nothing to do and I didn’t want to put my feet up, I wanted to be involved in the community and keep active.
It all started when the parish council asked me to open and close the park gates every day. I thought the park was a disgrace and wanted to do something about it, so I started picking up litter and then thought about other things I could do to bring more life back into the area.
‘After realising the local youngsters had nothing to do I started a football team and now we usually have about 45 boys and girls playing twice a week. It gives them something to do and since then we’ve put in an outside gym and a zipwire into the park, so they can exercise and have fun.’
Tendring District Council donated land for the football pitch, while local fundraising and charitable grants have helped Bill and his fellow volunteers, including the Payback team, to develop the village’s former bowls club building into the Parkeston hub.
Every week around 30 elderly people enjoy a free three-course meal cooked by fellow volunteers (although Bill still does the washing up) and there’s a weekly soup kitchen for local homeless people.
A litter picking rota helps keep the park spick and span and a nature area has been created, as well as allotments for local teenagers to enjoy growing their own flowers and vegetables, who have also been making bird boxes to encourage wildlife.
With effectively a full-time job on his hands and plenty of fundraising to organise, Bill now never has time to sit down. ‘It’s great to see the way people have come together and I really enjoy being part of it all,’ he adds.