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Cheltenham Volunteer Centre

PUBLISHED: 18:26 29 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:35 20 February 2013

Volunteering not only provides a valuable service to the community - it can also be of enormous benefit to the volunteers themselves....

7.20am: Cheltenham Volunteer Centre


It's cold, it's early, and the word 'voluntary' isn't one I'd normally associate with the act of getting up at 5.45am. But here I am, outside the offices of Cheltenham Volunteer Centre, ready to meet regular volunteer driver Shaun Roberts who's doing the same school run he's done for the last couple of years: to take 11-year-old twins Mollie and Hannah from Gloucester to Tewkesbury. He's not only younger than I imagined he'd be; he's more cheerful than I thought possible on a Monday morning at this unearthly hour.


"Everyone expects volunteer drivers to be retired," he grins, as we battle our way through the early Cheltenham traffic. "I'm in my early 40s - a house husband. My wife works full time and I look after our children. I made their packed lunches at quarter past six this morning.


"I started driving just to give a bit back, and to see what it was like - and I loved it! I know I could be out earning a bit of money, but I didn't want to do anything else. I really enjoy meeting the different people from different age groups and listening to what they've got to say. You build up a great rapport with them - they're such characters."


He pauses, the grin vanishing for a fleeting second. "I'm glad if they feel better after talking to me - maybe telling me things they wouldn't normally say to anyone else."


8am: Outskirts of Gloucester


I've no idea where we are; this is the sort of Cotswold area you don't often see in Daily Telegraph colour supplements. But this back street is where flame-haired Mollie gets into the car. Hannah's staying at home today - she's not well. They've been living with foster-parents full time - but in the next few weeks, they're going to be moving back in with mum; there's excitement in the air.


"Do your Scooby Doo impression!" Mollie instructs Shaun. He looks bashful - probably because I'm there. Mollie, (who loves dancing and gymnastics and wants to be a hairdresser), brings out a mobile phone full of photographs of Dylan, her Jack Russell, and Ruby, her current best friend - the previous one was justly demoted for saying unkind things. As she chats away, details slip out: a disabled brother; an older sister who's trying to integrate back into the school system. Life isn't equal for all 11 year olds.


"I used to pick a lovely chap up from here," Shaun says, pointing out a road we go past. "He'd been involved in a car crash that left him blind and disabled. Really nice chap." Used to? "He died." For a second, the flip side of developing a close relationship with passengers is all too obvious.


8.30am: Tewkesbury


Mollie disappears into school, waving cheerily to Shaun. "We like him - he makes us laugh." And we're off to collect Norma, a deaf and mute lady, who communicates via hand-written notes.


"I pick up young carers on a Wednesday evening - children who look after adults," Shaun tells me, shaking his head a little. "Their language can be graphic. I drive them to social events - out for a meal or 10-pin bowling; it helps them realise they're not alone in what they do. When they come back, they do seem to feel better."


These youngsters, with responsibilities way beyond their years, can seem brittle; hard. But Shaun's seen a different side. When one teenage girl collapsed in his car, her 'tough' companions dropped their act: the care they showed her could not have been more gentle or more tender.


Norma is ready, waiting by the side of her block of flats, as we pull up. She sits in the car, wrapped in her silent world, while Shaun tells me of another regular - Frank - one of life's natural poets. Now in his 70s, Frank suffered brain damage during an unprovoked attack 26 years ago; he's endured brutal headaches ever since and rattles with the number of pills he takes. "But he never moans; he's not bitter. I love talking to him - he's so knowledgeable."


This is no one-way relationship: powerful generous driver and helpless dependent passenger. I don't say anything, but it's as if Shaun has picked up on my thoughts. "I get so much from this," he says. "I'm far more understanding of people. They help me by making me feel better."


9.10am: We're back at the office, and I'm changing drivers. Tony Gardner has been a volunteer for two-and-a-half years, out driving five days a week. He badly damaged his back, working in the removals trade. "In 2004, I finally had to admit to myself I was disabled and retire," he says, with obvious sadness. "I can't sit too long; I can't walk too far. I'm in a lot of pain.


"But when you see other people and the state they're in - medically or mentally - you realise you're not so bad yourself. Besides, this gives you a sense of purpose; I'm a lifeline to them."


As we drive out into the depths of the country, he talks about his childhood, growing up on farms. In those days, life wasn't so selfish; so self-obsessed. Way back then, the community did many of the jobs nowadays left to volunteers.


We stop in a village outside an idyllic Cotswold stone house; the kind of house you see on calendars. The faade is misleading. Tony goes in to find Bryan, formerly a boardroom executive; now an Alzheimer's sufferer. The respect and affection Tony shows for this once-powerful man is deeply moving. Tony's taking him to the Ralph Marx day centre for people with memory problems. "We're going to the 'office'," Tony tells him. It's a concept Bryan still understands. Just.


9.45am: As we drive back to the volunteer centre, Tony and I discuss the strange phenomenon that being in a car provokes: It makes you want to talk.


People facing each other, making eye contact over a desk, are reticent; private; formal. Put them side by side in a car, give one a steering wheel and, over time, the most intimate subjects can be broached. "I'm a father confessor," Tony says. Sometimes drivers need to go back into the office to unload - to get some light relief; but the anguished confessions, the lurid details, the personal agonies, the laughter and the sorrow, stay firmly and privately shut within the metal frame of the car that transported them.


10am: Into the office for a brief chat with the volunteers and staff who answer the phones and do the paperwork back at base: volunteers such as Pauline Malvern, who has freely given up her time to organise bookings here for the last 20 years; and Jack Cratchley, a former police superintendent.


Just as I'm enjoying my first coffee of the day, Tim Turton, the transport coordinator, beckons me. "As you're going to do some driving yourself, we need to do some training and a test drive," he says.


Me? Drive?


Uh-hmm.


10.30am: I get behind the steering wheel of the van, specially adapted to take wheelchairs, and aim to impress. Up College Road, round by the hospital: I feel I'm doing fine.


"Are you happy to let me tell you what I think?" Tim asks, carefully. I brace myself.


Although I haven't executed any handbrake turns, or sprayed passing police officers with gravel, it becomes obvious Tim thinks Forumla 1 has missed a treat. "Try slowing down for roundabouts a little earlier," he suggests, kindly. "And keeping to the speed limit."


My second attempt is less Michael Schumacher; more Fred Dibnah on a steam engine. As Tim points out, with elderly or vulnerable people in the car, careful, sensitive driving is essential.


(And by the way, it's at this point that I begin to realise just how many pot-holes there are in Cheltenham.)


11am: Supervised by another volunteer, Chris Hughes, I pick up my first, real passenger - a delightful lady with an appointment at Cheltenham General. As it happens, she is a bit late; but I will not be moved. We drive carefully and sedately there. And Shaun and Tony are right - her thanks are worth more than any taxi fare.


12.30pm: Lunch with Hazel Lonsdale, chief executive of the volunteer centre, and Peter Day, the office manager.


Over hummus and pitta, in a caf across the park, I begin to realise the enormity of their task. Driving is only one of the volunteer jobs they coordinate. In short, the centre's task is to match more than 1,500 volunteers (and they could always do with more) to over 300 not-for-profit organisations whose interests range from conservation and the arts to an even larger swathe in the social care and health sectors. They also provide training for a multitude of organisations on how best to use this unpaid workforce. Every year, the centre's work grows; every year, it seems, funding is reduced. Yet volunteering is growing and changing by the minute. "A few years ago, you would hear people criticise others, saying things like: 'They're only doing voluntary work for themselves,' as if that was a bad thing," Hazel says. "But we're now getting to the point where people are quite rightly doing it to put on their CV, for example. Being a volunteer doesn't just help others; it can add to your own personal development; a training opportunity; a chance to try something new without some of the pressures a paid job would bring."


"Being a volunteer can help someone who has been out of the workplace for a length of time, or even someone recovering from a mental illness," Peter adds.


His job of coordinating volunteers with a suitable role is all the more important in situations like that. "The last thing anyone needs is to be put in a situation where they will fail," he points out.


1.30pm: Out in the Mercedes minibus with Susan Pearl, one of a small team of drivers employed by the centre. Fun, chatty and immensely caring, her bubbly personality must be a highlight of her passengers' week. "When I applied, they asked why I thought I could do the job," she laughs. "I told them I'm a farmer's daughter who'd driven horse boxes for 20 years." In fact, though her driving skills are sound, it's her ability to give a cuddle when it's needed that's just as vital. "There are occasions when I try to be a daughter," she says.


1.45pm: As we arrive at Gloscat, I realise why we've got this particular minibus. We're picking up Richard, who's been using the college gym all morning. Young, handsome and very funny, he's been confined to a wheelchair all his life. "It's vital for me to exercise because of not being able to use my legs," he says. "I use this service because it only costs 2.25 per journey. Since I come here twice a week, I couldn't afford it if I had to pay conventional taxi fares."


The banter between the two of them is continuous; when we get to Richard's home, on the outskirts of Cheltenham, Susan stops to chat with Ann, Richard's carer, without whose assistance he could not live such an independent life.


2.30pm: The last job of my day is to help Susan collect outpatients from hospital and take them home. One elderly gentleman has forgotten to bring his fare. When we get to his house, I go in with him to collect it for Susan. "I'm sorry," he says, quietly, looking round his hall as if with new eyes, "it's a bit of a mess. I can't do what I used to. It really needs decorating." I can't help but glance at the old brown paint, and the dressing table with its sagging drawers, clothes tumbling through the broken bottom. But it's as if today has suddenly crystalised for me. And, in place of an elderly gentleman, here, in front of me, is a person. Among the old-fashioned ornaments and faded once-cheerful curtains, I see a life: the feelings and hopes of a fellow human being who has lived through a war; who has seen gas lamps splutter and electricity pylons rise; who has seen the horses leave the fields and the tractors take their place; who has had his independence taken from him by the passage of time, and a volunteer bus put in its stead.


When I go back out, Susan looks at me. "Every day that I do this job, I help someone," she says, "and you can't have a better job than that."




Would you like to volunteer?



  • Cheltenham Volunteer Centre is an accredited centre which recruits and places volunteers with over 300 local charities, statutory organisations and voluntary groups. It also specialises in placing people who use volunteering as part of a recovery or stepping-stone process, and offers information and consultancy services to organisations that use volunteers. Over the last year, CVC has registered more than 400 volunteers and successfully placed many with a wide variety of client organisations. It is also home to Cheltenham Community Transport. The centre can be contacted on: 01242 257727; enquiries@volunteeringcheltenham.org.uk or via the website at www.volunteeringcheltenham.org.uk


7.20am: Cheltenham Volunteer Centre


It's cold, it's early, and the word 'voluntary' isn't one I'd normally associate with the act of getting up at 5.45am. But here I am, outside the offices of Cheltenham Volunteer Centre, ready to meet regular volunteer driver Shaun Roberts who's doing the same school run he's done for the last couple of years: to take 11-year-old twins Mollie and Hannah from Gloucester to Tewkesbury. He's not only younger than I imagined he'd be; he's more cheerful than I thought possible on a Monday morning at this unearthly hour.


"Everyone expects volunteer drivers to be retired," he grins, as we battle our way through the early Cheltenham traffic. "I'm in my early 40s - a house husband. My wife works full time and I look after our children. I made their packed lunches at quarter past six this morning.


"I started driving just to give a bit back, and to see what it was like - and I loved it! I know I could be out earning a bit of money, but I didn't want to do anything else. I really enjoy meeting the different people from different age groups and listening to what they've got to say. You build up a great rapport with them - they're such characters."


He pauses, the grin vanishing for a fleeting second. "I'm glad if they feel better after talking to me - maybe telling me things they wouldn't normally say to anyone else."


8am: Outskirts of Gloucester


I've no idea where we are; this is the sort of Cotswold area you don't often see in Daily Telegraph colour supplements. But this back street is where flame-haired Mollie gets into the car. Hannah's staying at home today - she's not well. They've been living with foster-parents full time - but in the next few weeks, they're going to be moving back in with mum; there's excitement in the air.


"Do your Scooby Doo impression!" Mollie instructs Shaun. He looks bashful - probably because I'm there. Mollie, (who loves dancing and gymnastics and wants to be a hairdresser), brings out a mobile phone full of photographs of Dylan, her Jack Russell, and Ruby, her current best friend - the previous one was justly demoted for saying unkind things. As she chats away, details slip out: a disabled brother; an older sister who's trying to integrate back into the school system. Life isn't equal for all 11 year olds.


"I used to pick a lovely chap up from here," Shaun says, pointing out a road we go past. "He'd been involved in a car crash that left him blind and disabled. Really nice chap." Used to? "He died." For a second, the flip side of developing a close relationship with passengers is all too obvious.


8.30am: Tewkesbury


Mollie disappears into school, waving cheerily to Shaun. "We like him - he makes us laugh." And we're off to collect Norma, a deaf and mute lady, who communicates via hand-written notes.


"I pick up young carers on a Wednesday evening - children who look after adults," Shaun tells me, shaking his head a little. "Their language can be graphic. I drive them to social events - out for a meal or 10-pin bowling; it helps them realise they're not alone in what they do. When they come back, they do seem to feel better."


These youngsters, with responsibilities way beyond their years, can seem brittle; hard. But Shaun's seen a different side. When one teenage girl collapsed in his car, her 'tough' companions dropped their act: the care they showed her could not have been more gentle or more tender.


Norma is ready, waiting by the side of her block of flats, as we pull up. She sits in the car, wrapped in her silent world, while Shaun tells me of another regular - Frank - one of life's natural poets. Now in his 70s, Frank suffered brain damage during an unprovoked attack 26 years ago; he's endured brutal headaches ever since and rattles with the number of pills he takes. "But he never moans; he's not bitter. I love talking to him - he's so knowledgeable."


This is no one-way relationship: powerful generous driver and helpless dependent passenger. I don't say anything, but it's as if Shaun has picked up on my thoughts. "I get so much from this," he says. "I'm far more understanding of people. They help me by making me feel better."


9.10am: We're back at the office, and I'm changing drivers. Tony Gardner has been a volunteer for two-and-a-half years, out driving five days a week. He badly damaged his back, working in the removals trade. "In 2004, I finally had to admit to myself I was disabled and retire," he says, with obvious sadness. "I can't sit too long; I can't walk too far. I'm in a lot of pain.


"But when you see other people and the state they're in - medically or mentally - you realise you're not so bad yourself. Besides, this gives you a sense of purpose; I'm a lifeline to them."


As we drive out into the depths of the country, he talks about his childhood, growing up on farms. In those days, life wasn't so selfish; so self-obsessed. Way back then, the community did many of the jobs nowadays left to volunteers.


We stop in a village outside an idyllic Cotswold stone house; the kind of house you see on calendars. The faade is misleading. Tony goes in to find Bryan, formerly a boardroom executive; now an Alzheimer's sufferer. The respect and affection Tony shows for this once-powerful man is deeply moving. Tony's taking him to the Ralph Marx day centre for people with memory problems. "We're going to the 'office'," Tony tells him. It's a concept Bryan still understands. Just.


9.45am: As we drive back to the volunteer centre, Tony and I discuss the strange phenomenon that being in a car provokes: It makes you want to talk.


People facing each other, making eye contact over a desk, are reticent; private; formal. Put them side by side in a car, give one a steering wheel and, over time, the most intimate subjects can be broached. "I'm a father confessor," Tony says. Sometimes drivers need to go back into the office to unload - to get some light relief; but the anguished confessions, the lurid details, the personal agonies, the laughter and the sorrow, stay firmly and privately shut within the metal frame of the car that transported them.


10am: Into the office for a brief chat with the volunteers and staff who answer the phones and do the paperwork back at base: volunteers such as Pauline Malvern, who has freely given up her time to organise bookings here for the last 20 years; and Jack Cratchley, a former police superintendent.


Just as I'm enjoying my first coffee of the day, Tim Turton, the transport coordinator, beckons me. "As you're going to do some driving yourself, we need to do some training and a test drive," he says.


Me? Drive?


Uh-hmm.


10.30am: I get behind the steering wheel of the van, specially adapted to take wheelchairs, and aim to impress. Up College Road, round by the hospital: I feel I'm doing fine.


"Are you happy to let me tell you what I think?" Tim asks, carefully. I brace myself.


Although I haven't executed any handbrake turns, or sprayed passing police officers with gravel, it becomes obvious Tim thinks Forumla 1 has missed a treat. "Try slowing down for roundabouts a little earlier," he suggests, kindly. "And keeping to the speed limit."


My second attempt is less Michael Schumacher; more Fred Dibnah on a steam engine. As Tim points out, with elderly or vulnerable people in the car, careful, sensitive driving is essential.


(And by the way, it's at this point that I begin to realise just how many pot-holes there are in Cheltenham.)


11am: Supervised by another volunteer, Chris Hughes, I pick up my first, real passenger - a delightful lady with an appointment at Cheltenham General. As it happens, she is a bit late; but I will not be moved. We drive carefully and sedately there. And Shaun and Tony are right - her thanks are worth more than any taxi fare.


12.30pm: Lunch with Hazel Lonsdale, chief executive of the volunteer centre, and Peter Day, the office manager.


Over hummus and pitta, in a caf across the park, I begin to realise the enormity of their task. Driving is only one of the volunteer jobs they coordinate. In short, the centre's task is to match more than 1,500 volunteers (and they could always do with more) to over 300 not-for-profit organisations whose interests range from conservation and the arts to an even larger swathe in the social care and health sectors. They also provide training for a multitude of organisations on how best to use this unpaid workforce. Every year, the centre's work grows; every year, it seems, funding is reduced. Yet volunteering is growing and changing by the minute. "A few years ago, you would hear people criticise others, saying things like: 'They're only doing voluntary work for themselves,' as if that was a bad thing," Hazel says. "But we're now getting to the point where people are quite rightly doing it to put on their CV, for example. Being a volunteer doesn't just help others; it can add to your own personal development; a training opportunity; a chance to try something new without some of the pressures a paid job would bring."


"Being a volunteer can help someone who has been out of the workplace for a length of time, or even someone recovering from a mental illness," Peter adds.


His job of coordinating volunteers with a suitable role is all the more important in situations like that. "The last thing anyone needs is to be put in a situation where they will fail," he points out.


1.30pm: Out in the Mercedes minibus with Susan Pearl, one of a small team of drivers employed by the centre. Fun, chatty and immensely caring, her bubbly personality must be a highlight of her passengers' week. "When I applied, they asked why I thought I could do the job," she laughs. "I told them I'm a farmer's daughter who'd driven horse boxes for 20 years." In fact, though her driving skills are sound, it's her ability to give a cuddle when it's needed that's just as vital. "There are occasions when I try to be a daughter," she says.


1.45pm: As we arrive at Gloscat, I realise why we've got this particular minibus. We're picking up Richard, who's been using the college gym all morning. Young, handsome and very funny, he's been confined to a wheelchair all his life. "It's vital for me to exercise because of not being able to use my legs," he says. "I use this service because it only costs 2.25 per journey. Since I come here twice a week, I couldn't afford it if I had to pay conventional taxi fares."


The banter between the two of them is continuous; when we get to Richard's home, on the outskirts of Cheltenham, Susan stops to chat with Ann, Richard's carer, without whose assistance he could not live such an independent life.


2.30pm: The last job of my day is to help Susan collect outpatients from hospital and take them home. One elderly gentleman has forgotten to bring his fare. When we get to his house, I go in with him to collect it for Susan. "I'm sorry," he says, quietly, looking round his hall as if with new eyes, "it's a bit of a mess. I can't do what I used to. It really needs decorating." I can't help but glance at the old brown paint, and the dressing table with its sagging drawers, clothes tumbling through the broken bottom. But it's as if today has suddenly crystalised for me. And, in place of an elderly gentleman, here, in front of me, is a person. Among the old-fashioned ornaments and faded once-cheerful curtains, I see a life: the feelings and hopes of a fellow human being who has lived through a war; who has seen gas lamps splutter and electricity pylons rise; who has seen the horses leave the fields and the tractors take their place; who has had his independence taken from him by the passage of time, and a volunteer bus put in its stead.


When I go back out, Susan looks at me. "Every day that I do this job, I help someone," she says, "and you can't have a better job than that."




Would you like to volunteer?



  • Cheltenham Volunteer Centre is an accredited centre which recruits and places volunteers with over 300 local charities, statutory organisations and voluntary groups. It also specialises in placing people who use volunteering as part of a recovery or stepping-stone process, and offers information and consultancy services to organisations that use volunteers. Over the last year, CVC has registered more than 400 volunteers and successfully placed many with a wide variety of client organisations. It is also home to Cheltenham Community Transport. The centre can be contacted on: 01242 257727; enquiries@volunteeringcheltenham.org.uk or via the website at www.volunteeringcheltenham.org.uk


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