Originally hailing from the North East, I was always determined to spend some of my three years in Durham helping the local community. I plucked up the courage in my third year, volunteering for the ‘Beyond Food’ project which was organised by the student-led organisation Student Community Action (SCA). This scheme teamed up with Trussell Trust foodbanks in County Durham to help put student volunteers into local food distribution points.
This was a cause I was deeply passionate about as I had read that foodbanks had been used nationwide over a million times in the previous year, so I was eager to help those in poverty in the local area. I decided to help out at the foodbank at Elvet Methodist Church, which is open every Tuesday afternoon.
Foodbanks are for those struggling to put food on the table. For people on low incomes, crises such as losing their job or a delay to benefits can mean going hungry. I wanted to volunteer at foodbanks to help alleviate this hunger, as I realised that people who may be my neighbours were through no fault of their own going without food.
Foodbanks work in four stages; firstly food is donated by the public, then volunteers sort and pack food into emergency boxes. Clients can then exchange foodbank vouchers for three days’ worth of food for themselves and their family. Potentially the most important stage is that volunteers then take time to listen and to signpost clients to further support.
Although I was nervous before my first day, the other volunteers welcomed me onto the team and made me feel at ease immediately. I received excellent training from the other volunteers and the Durham Christian Partnership, who co-ordinate County Durham’s foodbanks.
My work at the foodbank initially consisted of packing food parcels, but as I grew used to the systems in place I took on more responsibility. I progressed to the point where I was helping to roll out schemes such as the brand new ‘Fuelbank’, and give training to other volunteers. This entailed both a lot of paper work and administration, but what I enjoyed the most was talking to clients and trying to help them with their situation. Clients always appreciated a cup of tea and someone to listen empathetically to their problems.
Although this was by far the most rewarding aspect of the job, it was also heart-breaking to talk to people who faced such severe struggles in life. This could be things like mental illness, drug addiction, domestic abuse or all three. Getting an insight into a way of life I was so protected from as a student at University was both intriguing and emotionally challenging.
I have always been busy with extra-curricular activities throughout my three years at University, be this sport, college activities or student journalism so I found it relatively easy to balance my volunteering with my work towards a degree in Politics, even with the increase in work that comes with being a finalist.
Throughout my time in Durham, I have been lucky enough to win several awards, although my greatest honour was winning the Henry Tudor Student Development Award for my work at the foodbank. This award constituted an acknowledgement of my charitable work in the community, and also constituted a financial grant, which will allow me to continue my charitable work at foodbanks in my hometown of Derby after I graduate.
Volunteering at the foodbank has been the most rewarding thing I have done whilst at University. I would recommend all Durham students to get involved with charity, it is extremely fulfilling and is a chance to give something back to the incredible community of County Durham. There are infinite types of work and levels of commitment available to suit anyone. Volunteering has undoubtedly made me a much better and well-rounded person.
Written by student John Evans, St Cuthbert’s Society.