Sue Young, London
The last 2-3 years have seen a huge increase in volunteering, through Covid and also helping refugees. Many people will know Sue who is very visible in the School. Her energy and enthusiasm are legendary. Probably not so well known are all the other activities she engages in, serving the community at large. Last year she was appointed Volunteer of the Year by the Royal Free Hospital, London. Professionally, Sue has a business in dressmaking and design and she is a philosophy student in London.
An elderly patient in the hospital where I volunteer put out her hand to take mine saying “Thank you for all you do”. What could I say but, “It’s an honour and a pleasure”.
A conversation ensued about her life and how we can help others. I said I had never met anyone who does not help another. I made her a cuppa; we parted friends.
Aged 17, I met my life’s companion, Alan. I was at Fashion College, he at Art College – we clicked. We started searching for meaning in life (remember this was the early 60’s). We tried the Humanists, Quakers, Anglican Church, School of Meditation, and Buddhists but none seemed to hit the spot! One night travelling on the tube in London we saw a huge poster for The School of Philosophy and Economic Science. It struck a chord. When we enrolled for the philosophy course, a smiling gentleman welcomed us. Wow! It was one of Alan’s tutors from art college, sculptor Nathan David. We packed into the first floor room, full of questioning people. Then refreshment break with amazing open sandwiches, a bookshop with every book we had been looking for. Friends were made, then after class off to the local coffee bar for further discussions.
Willing to help out
In term 2 we were asked if we wanted to volunteer to help out, so we immediately said yes. First it was the team that met each Saturday evening to clean the Suffolk Street building. It was such fun; we were encouraged to put into practice all we had learnt in the philosophy class. We learnt fast, giving attention to every job fully, wholeheartedly. My parents were concerned I had given up parties for cleaning on a Saturday evening but we found time to party when the evening had ended! They were heady days full of discovery, education, fun and laughter.
Having come through the standard education system we missed out on a few subjects! But the School introduced us to Plato, Shakespeare, Advaita philosophy, Vedic maths, music, art, dance, Ficino, calligraphy – it was a new world.
Working with and for others
We liked the concept of service in the way the School introduced it: working with and for others. So we jumped into decorating, serving tea, addressing envelopes pre-computers! Our studies and practices continued and deepened with the support and bedrock of meditation. We went on retreats for weeks and weekends. Nanpantan Hall was a particular love of ours.
Art in Action was another fantastic opportunity where we were stretched, and challenged but stayed steady. The company and memory of the School’s teaching gave enormous support. All this was energising and fulfilling to our daily working lives as well as in the School community.
Meanwhile… volunteering in the community
While all this was going, some 30 years ago, I also volunteered to give time helping in my local hospital, in north London. I was working as a seamstress but being self-employed allowed that freedom. Seeing an ad asking for volunteers, I thought it would be good to work in the community.
I met the lady in charge who, without ado took me to a ward, and…just left me there! No checks, no infection control training, straight in! Brilliant! – a chance to meet a need, listen, observe. The staff needed help; they didn’t have much time to sit and listen to patients. I found that from these frail patients came amazing stories. There were others who were grumpy and demanding, so staying open-hearted was the challenge.
The Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead formed a trust and charity incorporating multiple hospitals. So we volunteers were given a ‘corporate’ uniform. This was really useful as everyone coming to the hospitals knew the ‘purple people’ were there to help. We were sent on training courses: how to assist handling and moving patients, feeding, understanding dementia and infection procedures
I moved from the cardiac ward onto a general medical ward which was geared towards helping dementia patients feel comfortable in a hospital environment. Brightly coloured walls, large writing, with symbols for bathrooms etc. I learnt so much from staff and senior dementia Nurse Doris with her boundless love and energy for all the patients, many of whom can be challenging.
Pre-Covid we ran a cafe for patients and families in a public space with tables, pretty tablecloths, tea, cake, plus entertainment, sing-alongs, a guitarist, and even a ukulele group. Patients were moved out from the wards on their beds or chairs and passing visitors and staff joined in.
Volunteer with Sewing
During Covid we were stood down. But through a BBC programme, I found out about a local curtain-maker who was looking for sewers to help make scrubs. He raised thousands to pay for the authorised fabric. He delivered the fabric and off I went like many others into ‘factory mode’ working all hours. I loved it.
In between sewing scrubs I was, like many others, our Editor included, making pretty face masks for friends and family. Or skin-to-skin baby wraps for the maternity unit which are designed to wrap Mum and baby together.
I then helped on a newly built Covid ward, going round with an ipad to facilitate patients meeting family for face to face or Zoom time together. Donning full PPE, double masks, gloves – it was so hot! The respect I have for the staff on 12+ hour shifts in those conditions is off the scale. What amazing dedication! It was most moving to be holding the ipad at the side of a patient, talking or listening to their loved ones.
To volunteer more in the community
In between, when Covid allowed I earnt some pennies working as a seamstress to pay my way, serving in the School, helping run five Tai Chi groups for University of the Third Age. I am the Neighbourhood Watch for my road. We have a drug problem in the road so need to keep in contact with the police. All this brings me into the local community which is nourished by the School community.
Everyone gives voluntarily, locally, nationally to an individual or organisation. Each of us doing our ‘bit’ makes up the whole. My work through service in the School certainly enabled me to meet all the challenges that life presents, for which I am grateful. The joy and satisfaction are unbounded.
What can someone gain from volunteering?
Oh, so much. I have gained many friends – that’s a bonus! A sense of worth through being of practical use and also emotional use. Also through empathy with a patient or a tired nurse, or listening to a grumpy patient who has complaints about their care! I gain happiness from meeting many different people; much openhearted warmth can arise through that connection with another. Whether they are a patient at the end of life or one who is going home, happy to have recovered.
At the end of the shift I feel happy, mentally energised, thoughtful and humbled to share for that short time, part of someone’s life at a difficult time. Why do I do this? In the beginning it was because I didn’t have great wealth to donate money to charities that are desperate for funds so how could I help? I could only give myself.
So onwards next to organise a Street Party for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in June – wish me luck!
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