Supporting people lies at the heart of our Community Engagement Directorate, and for many of our staff, that’s true both inside and outside their working hours. Here, Admin Officer Susan McLaren tells us how her role volunteering with older people has changed during the current pandemic – and why she now recognises the importance of the humble chocolate teacake.
Before I started working as a volunteer, I had no idea of the importance of chocolate teacakes in Scottish society. To me, they were just another biscuit – the one I get offered with a cup of tea each time I give blood. Now I know differently.
Eighteen months ago, when teacakes were the furthest thing from my mind, I started volunteering as a meal maker for a charity called Food Train. In my day job for Healthcare Improvement Scotland’s Community Engagement Directorate, I support my team to engage with people across Scotland and get them involved in health and social care. Community matters to me, and that doesn’t change when I stop working, which is part of the reason I volunteered. As a meal maker, I was paired with an older person in the community called Helen and cooked a nutritious (and hopefully tasty) meal for her once a week.
“In my day job for Healthcare Improvement Scotland’s Community Engagement Directorate, I support my team to engage with people across Scotland and get them involved in health and social care. Community matters to me, and that doesn’t change when I stop working, which is part of the reason I volunteered.”
Then the virus hit and lockdown happened. I quickly realised that Food Train would have a lot of extra demand for their shopping service but may be experiencing a reduction in numbers of their regular volunteers. They’ve been going since 1995 and recently celebrated their 25th anniversary, but have never experienced anything like this. A quick phone call and I was approved to help with the supermarket shopping service. Now I and a team of four or five volunteers are up and out with the lark three days a week to do shopping for about 140 vulnerable people in my community – all before I start the day job.
Simplicity is the key to shopping for others
When I first started the shopping role I was a bit unsure what to expect, but the co-ordinator for my supermarket shopping was really welcoming and explained in detail how it all works. As with the best things in life, simplicity is key. I am given the shopping list, do the shopping, pop it into crates (that have been sanitised, of course) and it’s then delivered by volunteer drivers throughout West Lothian.
Of course, it’s not always straightforward, especially when things aren’t avaiIable. I now understand the dilemma facing supermarket staff doing the pick for online shoppers – to substitute or not to substitute, that is the question! Luckily all the volunteers are willing to help with suggestions on this – it’s real team work. The one that did stump us for a while, though, was those chocolate teacakes. We had so many shopping lists given to us that contained them that when the factory at Uddingston closed and the shelves were bare we really struggled – I’m sure there were a few disappointed faces when the deliveries arrived. Apparently nothing beats a chocolate teacake with a cuppa! Fortunately production started back within a few weeks and we were once again able to meet the demand – phew!
Making a difference
Volunteering means an early start for me, shopping from 7-8 am (and that is after walking the dog) but the shop is usually quiet at that time and I also get to scope out all the bargains. I feel glad I’m able to help out someone who might be anxious about how they will manage if they can’t get out to shop for themselves. And as volunteers, the people we help have left us in no doubt just how much what we’re doing is appreciated. I recently received a note from one older person we’ve helped which read: “I was so worried about my food and shopping before you called me. Nobody could help me and I’m on my own. Not only do your volunteers shop for me but their wee visits really cheer me up. Wish they could visit every day”.
We’ve also had lovely surprised like a request on one shopping list for a box of chocolates for the Food Train helpers. This was lovely and totally unexpected but really brought it home how much this means. As one grateful daughter said “Knowing you can support my elderly mum is such a relief to me, you are all wonderful”. It’s very satisfying to know that my little bit of volunteering is making such a difference to other people’s lives.
“As volunteers, the people we help have left us in no doubt just how much what we’re doing is appreciated. I recently received a note from one older person we’ve helped which read: ‘I was so worried about my food and shopping before you called me. Nobody could help me and I’m on my own. Not only do your volunteers shop for me but their wee visits really cheer me up. Wish they could visit every day‘.”
Once COVID-19 is over and we’re all living in whatever the new normal will be, I like to think I’ll still be there with my shopping trolley, hunting out those teacakes. Whatever happens, I expect to still be making my weekly visits to Helen bringing her a tasty meal and having a bit of chat as well – it’s as important to her as it is to me. We’ve seen fantastic examples of community spirit during the pandemic lockdown and I look forward to seeing so much of it, not just in my day job, but by all of us, every day, all year round. It will be so important to help us all recover.