If you read my last blog (spare a thought), you’ll know that this xmas, I decided to volunteer for a fantastic charity called Crisis, helping them support homeless people at a time when they can feel particularly lonely and isolated. Specifically, I volunteered to work out of the Rough Sleepers’ centre looking after homeless people’s dogs. I’ve always wanted to volunteer, and, being a huge dog lover, this is where I thought I could add the most value.
It’s been an amazing experience – one which I’m not sure I’ve had enough time to reflect upon quite yet – but one I’m sure will stay with me forever. So I thought I’d share some of it with you…
The day before (Christmas Eve)
As my first shift approached, I became more and more apprehensive. I was really nervous about not knowing what to expect, and my emotions got a bit out of control with the thought of not spending Christmas with my family.
Thankfully, Crisis had done an amazing job of briefing their volunteers (vols) in the lead up to Crisis Christmas with loads of information about the potential work, the centres, the dos and don’ts – and had provided an extensive list of contact numbers if at any time before, during or after the event you needed any support. They did this through emails, face to face briefings and a dedicated (secure) internet page for volunteers only.
With that additional support along with knowing I was going to be part of a dedicated group of people supporting London’s homeless in having the best possible Christmas, I managed to keep motivated for the big day.
I didn’t get much sleep that night – thinking totally irrationally about the next day – you know, one of those nights where you blow everything out of proportion. So, when my alarm rang at 5:30 on xmas day, I was pretty knackered!
Day 1 – The big day (Christmas Day)
Feeling pretty grotty and very emotional, I got up, had some brekkie, got dressed, and read through for one last time the information Crisis had sent me to prepare for volunteering. Radio 5 live were doing a sports review of the year – being a big sports fan, it helped me keep my mind off the emotions that were getting a bit out of control! Get a grip girl!
I was extremely lucky as the Rough Sleeper’s centre was only a couple of miles away. Of course I got lost, but eventually found the building and managed to park on double yellows right outside – surely I wouldn’t get a ticket on xmas day?!
Getting out of my car, I was suddenly struck by an atmosphere really hard to describe – there were loads of people coming in and out of the gate and there was this amazing buzz. Suddenly, I felt a huge rush of excitement – exhilaration even. On checking in at the front gate, I was greeted by a real mixed bunch of people – some wearing santa hats, some top to toe in ski gear – and even a full-on santa wearing the most ridiculous clown shoes – good for him! All of them were really friendly and welcoming and it was instantly a comfort that I was surrounded by people from all walks of life, there to do the same thing as me.
After checking in, I was told to head to the 4th floor for a volunteer briefing. The lifts were out of order which meant I had to walk up through each of the floors which gave me a chance to check out what was happening in each part of the building.
Doctors, dentists, therapy rooms, massage, befriending services, Samaritans, TV rooms, karaoke(!!), kitchens, quiet zones, hairdressers, chiropodists, opticians, housing advisors, legal advisors, IT skills and much much more. All provided by volunteers – both the expert service or advice as well as helpers for each activity.
The briefing was really useful, giving us loads of information about the shelter, where each service was happening as well as useful tips on how to deal with certain situations that may arise. They also explained the volunteer badge system – green badges for the experienced vols, white badges with an orange circle for service vols and a plain white badge for general vols. Really useful as I later realised it’s virtually impossible to differentiate between vols and guests – and green badges are those to call on in an emergency.
Anyway, by that point, I was itching to get to the dogs, so as soon as the briefing was over, I raced back down the stairs, out the front door and on to the area reserved for the dogs – an outside area set up in the building’s car park. They’d done a great job of making the area secure by fencing it off and covering the fences with blankets to give the dogs a bit of privacy and, as I later found to be an absolute god send, to protect it as much as possible from the bitter winds that blew through the car park.
I received a really warm welcome from Rob, the main man in terms of set up and running the dog service, and I also met the other vols I’d be sharing the shift with.
But where were all the dogs?? Well, sadly, at that point, there were only two!! For various reasons and due to the shelter being some way out of central London, only a couple of guests had brought their dogs along. Everyone was gutted as normally there’d be about 20 dogs over xmas.
But, we saw it as a great opportunity to really pamper the two that were there – understatement of the year I hasten to add! Sadly, both of them had to be kept separate as, being two staff-cross boys, they didn’t like each other and had got into pretty serious ruck the night before – both coming off a little worse for wear!
So, we took it in turns to spend time with the dogs in their separate fenced off areas –playing footie with the muscle bound bundles of energy, feeding them, clearing up after them, and, probably the most rewarding, cuddling them. Both the boys were extremely affectionate and loved nothing more than endless tummy rubs. And, with it being sooooooo cold, none of us had a problem with this as they acted as perfect hot water bottles.
We also spent time with the owners who came down regularly, not wanting to be parted too long from their dogs. I’d love to tell you more about the owners and their pets but obviously, identities are strictly confidential and I need to respect that.
As the day wore on, we all started to really suffer from the cold. It was about 5 degrees, which I guess isn’t too cold in itself. But, when you’re standing around in it for hours on the trot, it takes its toll. We had a kettle in the kennels so we made endless cups of tea, and ate whatever people had bought in left over from their own xmas dos at home – mainly chocolate! One of the vols decided to go on a mission to find some heat and brilliantly managed to pinch one of the big heaters from the building – boy what a difference that made. Although it didn’t reach very far, it at least gave as a huddling point for the vols, guests and the dogs – and, with it chucking out a huge red glow (sorry environment), it actually made a beautiful festive scene with us all huddled round it.
It was getting towards the end of the shift, and all I could think about was getting home to a warm house, a hot bath and some warm food – but all that mixed with huge surges of guilt at the fact that I was lucky enough to have that as an option, knowing that many of the guests have to live through the cold and lack of food on a daily basis. I also knew that the dogs’ owners were going to spend the nights with their
dogs in the kennels themselves.
As I was about to leave, Rob (chief vol), got a call to ask if we had space to cater for another 5 dogs – music to our ears! So, for the last hour, we prepared for their arrival by making up their kennels, getting their food sorted and making sure we were ready to welcome them with open arms. They weren’t due until later that night, but I left with a warm glow knowing that we’d have some extra guests for our next shift.
That night, I was absolutely exhausted and emotionally drained. I spoke to my family but I have to say, hearing about them enjoying xmas together felt really strange. So, for the rest of xmas day, I didn’t do much other than warming up and getting some sleep for my next shift.
Day 2 – Boxing Day
I got up at about 6am with aches and pains all over – I’m guessing from the cold – but I was pretty excited at the thought of another 5 dogs to look after. I made myself a cooked breakfast at the hope it would keep me warmer for a little longer – knowing that it was supposed to be even colder that day (3 degrees).
This time, I didn’t get lost but had to drive around a bit to find a parking space a few streets away – no double yellows today! As I walked towards the shelter, I could feel the bitter wind that had picked up over night. I’d dressed even warmer that day to counter it, but knew we’d all suffer as a result.
But, as I got closer, I heard a very warming sound – lots of dogs barking!! Yes, the extra 5 dogs had arrived – and they were gorgeous! 5 black and white collies – all belonging to the same owner! And, they were all related – grandma, mum and dad, and two daughters. Absolutely gorgeous.
Their owner spent most of the day with us, telling us some amazing stories about life on the streets of London with his 5 babies. The other owners also came down regularly so we had loads of human and canine company through the day. And, word was spreading around the shelter, so as well as the regulars; we had loads of visits from other vols and also lots of the guests.
It was a great day – such an amazing mixed bunch of people from all walks of life, with some incredible stories to tell – but all with one thing in common – an unconditional love of dogs.
But it was cold – bloody freezing in fact, with an arctic wind howling through the gaps. So, we all improvised with making sarongs out of dog blankets while drinking endless cups of tea. With not a lot of food available, I popped to the local store to see if there was anything to help keep us going. And, it was then I spotted the old faithful – pot noodle! Yep, there’s always room in your life at some point for a pot noodle. So, I grabbed ‘original curry’, rushed back to the shelter, and set about preparing it – boil the kettle, pour in and stir. Simple as! And boy it was good – I woofed (excuse the pun) it down with the help of a plastic spoon (not the best thing for avoiding dropping half of it on your chin) but I didn’t care.
The vet also paid us a visit and spent a couple of hours checking each dog for all the basics. Each one of them was wormed and de-flead and each of them had their dirty little ears cleaned! Additional services such as neutering and chipping were also offered for when the vet returned a couple of days later. And, of course, these vets were also volunteers.
Despite it being absolutely freezing, it was a great day, and, once again, I returned home physically exhausted and emotionally drained – but feeling really rewarded. I also knew that I had a lie in the next day as I’d be working the afternoon shift – 4pm-11pm.
Day 3 – Saturday 27th
Had a great lie in but could barely walk for the first 30 minutes or so – think the cold was really starting to get to me – aches and pains all over. But it was great knowing I had a good few hours before my shift started at 4pm.
When I arrived at the shelter, the dogs were in a lively mood. The collies were insisting on playing ball and playing catch, and they’d all obviously eaten stuff that didn’t quite agree with them – nice! So, for the first hour or so, I played ball, catch, Frisbee, clean up duties, putting the bins out and so on.
On the shift change over, Rob told me that the previous night, two rotties and an akita had arrived, along with two additional staffs! Sadly, they’d all gone out for the day and were due back later that night – brilliant, couldn’t wait. Sadly, they never materialised – no idea why.
So, for my shift, I was looking after the two existing staffs and five collies.
It was bitterly cold again (2 degrees), but brilliantly, some of the vols had found some extra blankets and had put them up as wind shields – making a huge difference.
One significant difference from working the morning shift was what else was going on outside of the dogs’ area. The more musical of the guests had set up at the gate with a set of bongos and a guitar and spent most of the evening entertaining us all with their renditions of Oasis numbers. Pretty good actually – not sure how the guests at the Holiday Inn over the road felt about it!
There were fewer vols on that shift so it actually flew by as I was so busy. But getting in to the car, I realised how exhausted I was – again, I’m sure from the cold – and it was due to be even colder the next day!
Day 4 – My final shift – Sunday 28th
I had an even bigger lie in and again could barely move. I also had a stonking sore throat and my skin was looking a mess – god, how pathetic was I after just 3 shifts!! But, after a bath and a hot meal, I was raring to go.
When I arrived at the centre, there were stacks of people milling around outside – I think cabin fever had started to set in and the troops were restless. But, brilliantly, everyone was in a great mood and there was loads of friendly banter flying around.
Sadly that morning, the owner of one of the staffs had decided to leave – no idea why. So, it was just one staff and the 5 collies. They’d all had a visit from the vet that morning and had been treated for various things – and, as a result, they were all a little bit docile and a bit grumpy. So, my final shift consisted of lots of cuddles, clearing up some pretty awful looking you know whats and trying to block out what was by now an arctic wind (1 degree!).
There were even less vols also for that session so I even found myself on my own at times – a bit scary given I didn’t know who or what would arrive at any point. But I had my radio in case of emergencies and there was a great green badge vol who popped along regularly to see how things were going.
Half way through the shift, I suddenly heard some barking that wasn’t coming from the kennels! And, low and behold, another dog arrived – believe it or not, a chihuahua! He and his owner had just walked from Victoria (a pretty long walk for a tiny dog), through the biting winds, and were both exhausted, cold and hungry. So, we wrapped them both up and fed them with whatever we could find – shortly after which, they both crashed out.
As the end of the shift approached, surprise surprise, I started to get really emotional. I was really going to miss the dogs and their owners – and it was awful to think of leaving and never knowing what happened next. Horrible thoughts pass through your mind about what these guys are going back to – combine that with what you know you’re going back to – it’s pretty hard to swallow. So knowing what a blubber I am, I didn’t hang around too much saying my goodbyes.
I have to admit that I’m still feeling pretty sad about leaving everyone behind – but I’m also feeling really elated by the experience. I’m not sure it’s quite sunk in yet but it’s an experience I’ll never forget – and one that I would absolutely do again.
In fact, I’ve got the bug now and have already penciled my name in for next year. I’m also looking at other volunteering opportunities I can do through the year – probably working with animals again, but also looking at opportunities where I can offer my skills as a service eg teaching IT skills, writing, presenting and so on.
It’s taught me a lot – about homelessness, about volunteering, and about myself. It’s certainly helped me put things into perspective – and it’s made me think about the real value of things I take for granted – hot water, clean underwear, warm clothes, dry clothes, central heating, routine, choice, friends I can trust, my bed, hot water, my family and many many more. And the thought that I’ve been able to contribute, even in the smallest of ways, in helping a man and his dog have a better xmas than they may have done – feels very rewarding.
Fancy giving it a go?
If you’re thinking of volunteering, please don’t hesitate – it’s a fantastic life experience and charities and causes can never have too many volunteers – without them, they simply wouldn’t be able to function.
And, as Arthur C Clarke once said, and also the Crisis motto:
“The only way of finding your limits of the possible is by going beyond them into the impossible”
I’d love to hear from anyone else who may have volunteered over xmas – or at any time in the past.