Doing What We Can

Tonight was my third consecutive week volunteering with Serve the City ‘s Food 4 Friends iniative to help the homeless (refugees and other misplaced people) sleeping rough around Gare du Nord station. I took eighteen sleeping bags, bought with money generously donated* by my lovely friends. At the start it was tense. The temperature has plummeted and tonight it was barely above five degrees. People are cold and worried about the impending winter. And understandably so. As we began to distribute the sleeping bags tensions rose still higher, until at one point a fight broke out. Fortunately it petered out and we resumed the distribution, but even then there was a lot of pushing and jostling as people desperately tried to make a claim for a sleeping bag. It was heart wrenching.

I was so happy to give my Sudanese friend, Bakare, the sleeping bag I promised him. I was also, thanks to the generosity of a friend, able to buy him some new shoes. He said “when I see you, it makes me happy,” which made me feel amazing. It feels so good to be doing something at last, even if it is just being a ferrier of sleeping bags and offering good cheer. What made me less happy was meeting 13 year old Alaudin, who arrived in Brussels two months ago after making the long three month journey from Sudan with his brother. Alaudin is a tall boy, skinny and quiet, with huge doleful brown eyes. He was wearing only a thin jacket and was shivering. I was happy to see he had managed to get one of the sleeping bags I brought, but I was still worried for him. So I took him to the volunteer serving chai and got him a cup, and then went back to another volunteer who was handing out clothing donations (tonight we were very lucky as a church group who had gathered a lot of clothes and sleeping bags made the journey into Brussels to deliver them – without those donations it would have been much harder to manage giving out mine) and managed to grab him a fleece jumper, pair of gloves and scarf. The gloves weren’t warm enough though, he needs some better ones. I promised to bring some next week.

There were more people tonight than the last two weeks. The fight at the beginning aside, I saw only smiles despite the plummeting temperature. It is so clear that people appreciate the volunteers and the work they do. And being able to speak with everyone and find out their stories is so humbling and such a privilege. I feel almost ashamed when people ask me where I’m from and I say “England,” because I know that all they want to do is make it to my country. It feels so unfair that I can hop on a Eurostar or drive through the tunnel without a care in the world, when they can’t even dream of such an easy life.

But we stay strong. And we stay cheerful. And we continue to help our friends all that we can.

*Cash donations will continue to be gratefully received to help provide some comfort during the cold winter.

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Giving thanks

This morning at work we had an informal staff meeting, during which everyone (there were about twenty of us present) was asked to ‘check in’ – a technique used in the psychology practice that underpins the work the charity does. When you check in, you simply tell the other members of the group how you are feeling, and any other information that you wish to share. Today, for example, we all talked about our experience of the summer, where we’d gone on our various holidays and how we generally felt the season had gone. We also talked about our work, sharing our successes and any challenges we had faced. At the end of the meeting one of our facilitators and two of our young people turned up and joined in, which felt really lovely and inclusive.

I must be honest and admit that I usually begin sharing sessions like these with an attitude more befitting of a petulant teenager than a grown adult. I feel a bit awkward and embarrassed, and I can’t concentrate for worrying about my ever increasing to do list and how the gathering is delaying me actually getting any work done. But as soon as the sessions begin I start to relax. And today, as I listened to all the positive things my colleagues said I felt a warm glow and a real sense of pride at being part of such a fantastic and inspiring team.

It strikes me as I write this how sad it is that few people take the time to really get to know the people they work with and spend what is, let’s face it, the majority of their waking lives in close proximity to. When work builds up and you’re feeling the pressure it’s far easier to fire off an email than pick up the phone or meet face to face. It’s also easy to let small niggles about another person build up so that, before you know it, your whole relationship has deteriorated beyond all repair, with you treating one another at best like automatons and at worst with ill-disguised contempt rather than as fellow human beings with feelings, wants and needs.

Key to the checking in process is the act of congratulation – praising people for the things they have done well, and saying it from the heart. It really means so much to be recognised for your achievements, not in a generic appraisal email but in person and in front of your co-workers. This is why, despite the inevitable frustrations that arise in any workplace, I’m so thankful to work in an environment where people genuinely care. Don’t get me wrong, we’re hardly the Waltons of the work world – far from it – but it’s certainly a world away from the hard, corporate environments I’ve worked in before. And you know what? At this stage in my life, that’s more than enough for me.

How could I not be inspired working alongside these fab young people?