Will volunteers still be able to make such a difference in the future, as the retirement age increases?
On our sixth annual Pilgrimage Against Poverty – with the theme ‘What makes a Good Society?’ – we heard over and over again how the projects we visited depend on and value volunteers to support their work with the homeless, helpless and vulnerable. Mental illness was also closely linked to the situations of many of those who are being assisted across the city.
St Wilfrid’s, one of the largest day centres in northern England and featured in the ‘Secret Millionaire’ on television, started to help homeless men in 1991. The workshop, education programme, community concerts, drama and sports all contribute to building confidence in the clients, who can then make friends and improve their self esteem and life skills.
The challenging dream of raising £1.8 million to build a residential unit should become a reality in one or two years. They will be able to support and equip those with learning difficulties, disability or mental health issues to learn to live independently
Sheffield Christian Council for Community Care helps isolated older people at home and as they are discharged from hospital. Volunteers provide a listening ear, and practical items, such as raised chairs, rollator frames and temporary key safes are borrowed or hired. The office is open from 9am to 9pm, so the staff are able to respond quickly to emergencies. The age profile of those who are helped is now mostly 80 to 90 years, with many over 100!
Evangelists at Wilson Carlile Centre, head office of the Church Army, reach out to the “least, lost and last”. The café provides a place for listening to problems and worries, so that the mission taken out on to the streets has a purpose. The pupils at the primary school next door are 97% Muslim, but the chaplain takes assemblies, and by listening here and talking to local leaders, he can support community needs in prayer.
The Archer Project, in a purpose-built space below the cathedral, has a wide range of services to assist homeless people: regular visits by a dentist, doctor and chiropodist, training in Food Hygiene and Catering, and an online centre for City and Guilds qualifications.
Former clients have become volunteers, and many local firms fundraise by ‘sleeping on the street’ for a night, and help sort out the hundreds of food parcels donated by schools and churches at Harvest time.
The pilgrimage ended with a discussion about a ‘Good Society’. Inequality continues to grow in our country, and from first-hand experience it is obvious that changes in benefits are affecting many people for the worse. The stock in food banks flies off the shelves, and over a cup of tea and feeling in a safe place, one client confided that they had learned cooking skills in prison. Another change in rules means that there can be sanctions for unemployed people who volunteer. This means that even those who want to share their skills or learn new ones to improve their job opportunities are being hindered – even they are not allowed to make a difference. One pilgrim said later:
“It was excellent- but left me [emotionally] exhausted as well as inspired – with shrinking church attendance in many places, I’m left wondering where will the new inspiration [to help]come from..?”