How being a volunteer shopper keeps you on your toes!

“Doing shopping for frail, elderly and vulnerable people who can’t get out is such a vital service. It’s a real lifeline,” Mary told me as I chatted with her while she drove home! She was, of course, on speaker phone so she could reassure me that she was driving safely. It soon became apparent that Mary is a very busy lady, so I was fortunate that she spared me some time to talk about her volunteering experience with Communities 1st. What an amazing story she had to tell!

Mary, who lives in Potters Bar, has been a volunteer with Communities 1st since the start of the COVID epidemic. Today she shops for about three or four mainly elderly people across Cuffley, South Mimms, Potters Bar, and Borehamwood. She explained that the Communities 1st system makes the shopping very easy for her:  she goes online, prints off the shopping list, does the shopping, sends in the receipts and the charity reimburses her. “The system is simple, efficient and works well for the both the user and the volunteer so it’s a win/win situation.”

For Mary, however, doing the shopping doesn’t end there. “Many of the people using the service have no one else who can help them. They may have no family nearby and their friends may not be in a position to help,” Mary explained. “They may be lonely, so it is useful to provide social contact.”  Seeing someone face to face can really make a difference. “There is one elderly lady,” Mary laughed, “who will talk to me on the doorstep for half an hour or longer. We chat about her health and any worries that she may have. She has no family nearby and I don’t think she sees many other people.”

Mary finds it very satisfying to help people who can’t do things for themselves. “I like to get out and meet people,” she explained. “I’ve always been a helper. I can’t sit at home – I would get bored.” She spends about 3-4 hours each week doing shopping for vulnerable people and this keeps her busy.

I thought that was a great account of an enthusiastic volunteer which clearly demonstrates the benefits for both the “service user” and the volunteer. Job done, I thought! But no! I delved into Mary’s back story and discovered a life of experience and service to the community.              

Mary, born in Jamaica, moved with her parents and brother to north London when she was seven years old. Both her parents were surgeons with the National Health Service, one working in North Middlesex Hospital and the other at the Whittington. It may have been this which gave Mary her great passion and drive to help others. Mary went on to become a Metropolitan Police officer, married another policeman and had a son who, now in his late 20s. Both her husband and her son provide great support to Mary. After a thirty-year career with the police, Mary retired. She tried sitting back, but that didn’t work so she got a job doing “customer fulfilment” with Tesco. However, she still found time to be a Vaccination Centre Volunteer with Communities 1st up to four times a week and volunteer as an NHS Community Responder!

In Jamaica, Mary grew up as a family friend of legendary footballer John Barnes; she continues to be an enthusiastic Liverpool supporter. When her son was young, she set up a football team, did her coaching badges, and became involved in club and league committees. Today, she still helps to run two teams in Cuffley. She has also been involved in Air Cadets and got her gliding wings. She is on the committee for an Air Cadet Squadron.

Which brings me to perhaps the biggest surprise of all about Mary – the PARACHUTE JUMP! She has done a lot of fundraising and as part of that she has completed a sponsored parachute jump and organised several quiz nights and a casino nights, helping to raise thousands of pounds.

Mary is a good example of the old saying that “if you want something done, ask a busy person.” She tells me: “I like to be busy – I’d get bored otherwise.” Well, with Mary there is no risk of that, which is to the benefit of not only Mary but also the wider community. 

Written by Chris Cloke