I thought I’d do something different last Christmas – the idea of slobbing around and eating too much, watching The Snowman and the Queen’s Speech yet again, didn’t appeal.
Crisis maybe? I’d heard great things about volunteering with them over Christmas so I put myself down for three days from Christmas Eve. The website was incredibly user-friendly and it was easy to sign up. In fact, the whole Crisis experience is very slick.
I worked at a residential centre known as “Winter Rough Sleepers”. It was in a big school in North London with 200 camp beds. I’m not sure what I expected. Peeling lots of spuds, general bonhomie and hearty singing?
- Christmas Eve
“185 guests, 259 meals served, medics, dentists, opticians, podiatrists, sewing, massage, physio, 130 volunteers.”
Far too many volunteers but apparently, they overbook in case of too many no-shows.
The guests were incredibly well-dressed which I found rather bewildering. Some had brand new trainers and a number had the latest mobile phones. Actually, apart from the name badges, it was hard to tell them apart from the volunteers.
I was what was called a ‘general volunteer’. My first job was to guard a door to stop guests coming in and direct them round to the main entrance. None turned up so I just chatted with other volunteers and drank coffee for a couple of hours.
Next job was to guard a corridor which led to the sewing area and welfare services, both of which were shut – so I had a wander round the AA room, reading their various leaflets wondering whether the constant references to God and Him were really necessary.
Next job? Sitting in the cinema (fancy name for a largeish tv with a dvd player) with two other volunteers while the guests watched a film. Read the paper again..
Went back to the volunteer area, read the paper a bit more, ate yet more chocolate… wandered through to the main area and joined a table of 2 guests and 4 volunteers. The guests weren’t remotely interested in us. They didn’t even eat much, which amazed me. One declared himself to be vegetarian and the other one moaned about the food because he was gluten-free.
- Christmas Day
“211 registered guests, 259 meals served to guests, 150 volunteers”
I met Jane in the car park. She had driven down from Norfolk and was staying in a hostel. She was probably mid twenties. There was surely an interesting story there and I was dying to probe, but I didn’t. I’m sure there were a lot of interesting stories and reasons why volunteers chose not to celebrate Christmas with family/friends .
On arrival, I dumped my stuff in the volunteer room and went straight to the canteen to mingle rather than wait to be told what to do. The carol singing was on so I grabbed a microphone and joined in for an hour or so.
Someone shouted out ‘who plays chess?’ I found myself in two good long games with a Jamaican man. The Bingo came on so he multi-tasked but found it hard to see the numbers. “I left my specs at home” said the “homeless” man.
- Boxing Day
“Another great shift with some amazing & hardworking volunteers serving 232 meals. fabulous entertainment again tonight with guest Evelyn taking over the karaoke. lovely to see so many volunteers engaging with guests.”
Three hours playing chess again with my new best friend. This wasn’t skiving I told myself. It was making a homeless man very happy. The rest of the time was spent listening to some really good music and singing. The singer was homeless. She was quite brilliant.
Strangely, when I left, I had a feeling I was going to miss the place. It’s a great atmosphere. I might even go back next year but I might get myself a food and hygiene certificate and perhaps be allocated something a bit more fulfilling. Oh, and promise myself to be a bit more “group-minded”.