Life changing volunteering

I first volunteered with Crisis at Christmas when I was 18 and in the sixth form.  People often ask me what inspired me to get involved, and the fact is that I saw a poster in my common room and thought ‘I could do that’.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into! My first year was incredibly difficult, I felt very overwhelmed by all of the personal stories that guests were telling me and, as someone who had led a relatively sheltered life, I was not prepared for the profound impact it would have on my life.  One of the stories that still affects me is that of a young man, in his late twenties, who had a Mathematics degree from Cambridge and used to work in Canary Wharf.  He had been really successful but developed an inoperable eye condition that led to him, after some more bad luck, sleeping on the streets.  It was that moment that really made me realise – homelessness could happen to anyone.

Since volunteering with Crisis for the first time I have volunteered with lots of different organisations, but I keep coming back to Crisis.  There’s something incredible about a group of strangers coming together for a week or so over Christmas, creating a homeless shelter out of a disused building, running it for 400 people and then all going their separate ways again at the end.  Crisis at Christmas is not a soup kitchen, over the course of the week we provide over fourteen different services to our guests including healthcare, podiatry, a salon, legal advice, a dog kennel, arts and crafts, natural healing, opticians, CV writing, and even karaoke.  It’s a bustling, energised, fully resourced world for our guests to immerse themselves in for a week.  Our advice teams have an incredible success rate in terms of getting guests into long term housing and Crisis helps all guests to access learning and support year-round through their Skylight centre.  I’m trying to put into words what it feels like to come into the world of Crisis at Christmas and feel the positivity, the joy and the camaraderie of volunteering but it’s something best described as ‘Crisis magic’.  If you want further proof, this was my seventeenth year volunteering with Crisis and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else over Christmas.

2020 was different though.  We couldn’t welcome guests with hugs and intimate chats or offer services like hairdressing and dentistry.  What we could do though was give every one of our 135 guests their own hotel room for two weeks, a safe and warm place to stay, with three hot meals a day and regular welfare checks.  Christmas day was made extra special by a wonderful three course dinner and the generous presents donated by Sydenham students which surprised and overwhelmed our guests.  Although some of the ‘buzz’ of the usual centres was lost I feel incredibly proud that we were able to get people off the streets during the harsh weather, offer them emotional and legal support, activities through a brand new app, and still have a fantastic success rate.  Based on the information from the housing team who were with us every day, I think my centre helped approximately thirty people get into long term housing this year.  That’s thirty people who would otherwise be returning to the street if it hadn’t been for Crisis.

Volunteering with Crisis has been a personal journey for me.  I went from being a typically self-absorbed teenager to someone who wanted to make volunteering a central part of their life.  I choose a career in teaching because I wanted to make a difference in the world and Crisis helped me to discover that about myself.  I would strongly encourage anyone reading this to find something you care about and volunteer, just give it a go even if you aren’t sure because you never know where it might lead you.

– Sally Macdougal, English Teacher

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