Claire started volunteering with Communities 1st as a response to the COVID epidemic. She hadn’t any experience of volunteering in this country and, to be honest, she hadn’t heard of Communities 1st! However, her experience has been very positive, and she was keen to tell me that she found the world of volunteering very welcoming even though, in the face of “the crisis,” everyone was under pressure and so busy. She told me that “everyone was very friendly, and the volunteer organisers were brilliant. Very professional. If you had any worries, they were always there to help.”
Claire has lived in St Albans for some 24 years. Before that she and her husband lived in the Netherlands as he worked at Shell head office in The Hague. At that stage, Claire did some work with voluntary groups. On returning to the UK, Claire spent time bringing up her two daughters who today are aged 21 and 23. With more time on her hands, Claire became a teaching assistant. She then, with a friend, set up a company to provide breakfast and after school clubs in local schools. Claire is enormously proud of what she has achieved. Then COVID struck and the work stopped.
Having done all that she could to support her staff, who were furloughed, Claire looked for opportunities to join the fight against the epidemic. At first, she thought she would become a volunteer vaccinator, but she found those posts were quickly filled. A friend, who is a volunteer, suggested Communities 1st and Claire responded to the call. She quickly felt that she was welcomed, valued, and making an important contribution to the community-wide fight against COVID.
“At the start, I helped do shopping for vulnerable people who couldn’t get out,” Claire explained. “During the first lock-down, this was essential. When I was busiest, I could be doing two or three shops a week. You soon realise that shopping might not be as straightforward as you think! For example, your shopping list might say ‘Ham.’ Then when you get to the supermarket, you’re confronted with sixteen different types of ham! As you get to know the people you shop for you understand what they want. Usually, people’s shopping lists are the same each week. But you can’t rely on that. I had one gentleman who was the exception to the rule. Each week his list would be very different! Out of the blue, one week he asked for a frying pan!”
On a more serious note, Claire recalls how the shopping service meets a real need. “One of the first people I shopped for had COVID and she was really very ill. I was warned that she might take a long time to answer the door. I was expecting a little old lady. So I was surprised the first time I rang the bell and after a while it was answered by a young woman not much older than my daughter, in her early twenties. For me that was a jolt. She lived by herself and was quite isolated. I shopped for her for several weeks and it was encouraging to watch her gradually get better.”
The call went out for volunteers to work at the vaccination centres, Claire responded and could regularly be seen doing shifts at Batchwood, London Colney, Alban Arena, Sandridge, and with the mobile units, she felt warmly welcome to this work. She did the whole range of jobs – directing traffic, helping in the car parks, handing out questionnaires, queue management, wiping down seats, and so on. Claire did several shifts a week. “I really enjoyed the work,” she explained, “You got to know the people you were working with. You are appreciated and you know that you are delivering a necessary service. You have a sense of doing your part and contributing to the wider approach.”
“When I was volunteering at Batchwood, my friend and I took photographs of ourselves. I sent a picture to my daughters and captioned it saying that these would be the only occasions that you’d catch me on the dance floor at Batchwood night club!”
Claire recognises that there can be challenges and you need to think on your feet. One day, she was with a mobile centre in St Albans high street delivering vaccinations to 16–17-year-olds. A researcher engaged Claire and asked her about the work she was doing and what she would say to someone who was worried. Claire realised that the “researcher” was recording what she was saying and that she wasn’t a researcher at all but an anti-vaxer. The anti-vaxers were out trying to discourage people from having vaccinations. Claire felt that as a volunteer she shouldn’t express an opinion, so she calmly asked the protesters to move on. She explained that “when you volunteer you never know what exactly is going to happen, but you always get to use your initiative and there are people who are on hand to help.”
Now that lockdowns have been lifted, Claire is back at work providing the much-needed services of breakfast and after school clubs. Claire no longer volunteers with the vaccination programme but she still does shopping for two ladies – one is in her sixties and the other who is vulnerable because she has very poor vision. She has a friend who also does shopping for Communities 1st. They like to compare notes, along the lines of: Friend, to Claire, “Have you been asked to shop this week?” Claire answers “Yes, a couple of times!”
Friend, “What, why haven’t I been asked?” It’s all in good humour and the two friends agree that talking about their experiences is an unexpected pleasure.
Until COVID, Claire hadn’t volunteered in this country but she was warmly welcomed when she took up the role. She recognises that some people may be reluctant or anxious about volunteering but based on her experience Claire has no hesitancy in recommending that people should take the leap.
Written by Chris Cloke