Volunteering during the pandemic

In March when Europe went pear-shaped, I had just gotten into cycling regularly (a 1-hour commute to work by bike) so, amongst the many stresses & questions around the transition to being locked up at home 24/7, I found myself wondering about whether there was some good use to which I might put my new hobby. Something that might, as Spring began to let loose its birds & bees and glorious sunny days, afford me the enjoyment of the outdoors whilst achieving something positive for those around me.

Signing up for Lewisham Local’s mailing list and seeing its many advertised volunteering opportunities, I began to sense that it might be possible. This was one of the worst-impacted areas in the first weeks of the pandemic and there was an apparent need for help on a huge scale, to get families the food they needed each week.

Having recently become increasingly certain about the value of vlogging (even purchasing a green screen to begin making the odd live performance video), I made a shortlist of GoPro-style “dashcam” devices for the bike, to enable me to capture the food delivery outings into an inspirational channel for people to see how positivity could be created by finding a spare 30mins in one’s day to get out and ride for a good cause.

However with one thing and another, I failed to get around to doing anything about it. Spring passed, Summer came & went. Once things settled into a stable work-from-home routine and lockdowns eased around the world, I found I was cycling a-plenty. But in August I had a fairly serious crash on the South Circular which landed me in hospital for some hours getting a CT scan. I’d been working hard, for too many months at the screen without a break. After the crash, I took a week away in the Lake District to reconnect and recover some sense of priority.

On the hiking trip I watched (exhausted each evening after many miles of toil) the local news becoming bleaker & bleaker as the UK edged towards a second lockdown. I started to wonder about my contribution to this mess.

In late September, returning to Lewisham with a car, I realised the problems were about to get a whole lot worse for local families and that I needed to act, to do my small part in the stemming of chaos. I had been receiving the Lewisham Local mailer for 6 months by this point but not actively chased down any volunteering opportunities — a handful of broken mailto links had been enough to excuse me from following up. This time was different… for each opportunity I decided I wanted, there would be no excuse:

  • I emailed the recommended link.
  • I looked up the relevant church/group on facebook to message them there.
  • I hit Reply on the mailer and stated explicitly to LL themselves that I’d written to the relevant church/group by email, and a 2nd method, and that I’d appreciate if LL could please nudge them to check they’d received.

Within 48 hours I’d heard back from 2x charities desperate for drivers. The following day I found myself at the steps of St Peter’s Church Brockley, peering in at the buzzing mass of fellow volunteers — this place was packed! I stepped cautiously around the one-way system, glasses misting up over my mask and gloves, a little nervous that this would be the busiest place I’d visited all year.

Anne welcomes volunteers as they arrive, thanking them kindly for their ongoing participation or, if they’re new, giving them a bright smile and clear directions as to where they need to be, when, how often. Phil on the operations desk, handles the assigning of crates & destinations to each driver as they approach. On my first visit I took 3x crates and he explained how I’d be heading up into Deptford and back along a fairly trafficky road, so watch out and don’t rush. Leave yourself plenty of time to call ahead, let them know you’ve parked up, and find the steps/elevator if it’s an estate block. One of Phil’s most important jobs is to check we understand how to destroy data correctly:

  • turn off Caller ID before heading out.
  • if you must use GPS navigation then clear the destination/route history.
  • don’t make copies of names, addresses, phone numbers, and hand back the printed cards along with the crates.

At the end of the first 90-minute volunteering session, I felt an exhiliration I’d never sensed before. Knew I’d be in this for the long haul. Two days later I was at St Mark’s in Catford to find out about an equivalent program they support called “Legendary Community Club”.

Alexandra & Michala were so welcoming and so driven to get things done. As important as the logistics though, the care they took to explain each family’s situation and how to handle difficult scenarios like nobody being in at delivery time. They told me LCC is a “food pantry” (there is so much stigma attached to “food bank”) and that they are working closely with The Children’s Society, Save The children and The Food Foundation, not just making deliveries but also campaigning for systemic change in the UK. Plenty info available on their Twitter and Go Fund Me.

I’ve now been to St Peter’s six times and St Mark’s four. Both are always such inclusive places, professionally run… and deserving of your help. I’m not saying “there’s no excuse, get out there and help” because I know (better than ever, having seen first hand some of the difficulties with which families in Lewisham are coping at the moment) that everybody has different struggles and reasons why they might well not be able to get out and find time — I’m saying there have never been more excuses. But that, with the power of technology, it’s never been easier to get out and overcome those excuses.

To see Phil & Michala whip up a driving route in seconds flat, enabling the delivery of goods that otherwise would simply not reach families, is to witness a feat of technical excellence and to become inspired. If you have spare capacity in your schedule, your headspace, your energy each week, then you could certainly do worse than spending an hours to head out and try it just once. I’ve already roped in one new volunteer who joins me as driver so I can carry & navigate more effectively:

Drivers for St Mark’s pack & deliver for LCC’s two particular projects “Schools Project” and “Lunch Club”, whilst St Peter’s is its own initiative. If you’re in South East London, check them out and maybe I’ll see you there carting crates next week; otherwise search locally for foodbanks you can help.

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Oli Steadman

Oli Steadman

Bass/BV @StornowayBand. DataCat @AstraZeneca. Consulting via StoneStreetProductions.