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by Rosie Clover-Brown

Rosie is the recipient of a 2017 Royal Borough of K&C Mayor's Award.

Rosie has been welcoming guests with a bit of banter and a twinkle in her eye since 2000. She cooks and serves food twice a week at the Chelsea Methodist Church drop-in, volunteers up to four times a week in our winter night shelters, and is a regular participant of the annual Glass Door Sleep Out. Here, Rosie reflects on her many years of service. 

How it began

I started volunteering 17 years ago. A friend asked what I was doing one Saturday. I thought: "Ah, he’s going to suggest a visit to the pub." But he said: "Come to the night shelter." I had already said I was free, so I couldn’t get out of it. I said I’d come for an hour or so.

That first night at the shelter, I met Derick. He used to work in the engine room of a ship. His hearing was shot, and he just shouted. It kind of broke the ice. We got on really well. We were cracking jokes. And then other guys came over, wanting to get in on the joking.

And it went from there. After that first winter season ended, I wanted to continue on, so I took on a role at the Chelsea Methodist Church as a "listening ear" to whomever came through the door and wanted to share their problems. I then thought, "If we’re going to have a chat, I might as well make some tea."

Now, at that time, there were only two or three guests that came around to do their laundry. One said he was really hungry, so I started making sandwiches. Then as numbers increased I would make hot food at home, which I would transport on the bus in insulated containers. Soon there were fifty hungry mouths to feed. Eventually the church took it over, and now we serve a full hot lunch for up to 100 people. 

Broken assumptions

I have so much to thank the guests for.

Everybody has preconceived ideas about what homeless people are like. Getting to know the guests has completely broken down my assumptions.

For example, there was this guy once, and he was getting a bit shirty. He explained he hadn’t eaten for a long time. I said, "I’m horrible when I’m tired and particularly when I’m hungry. I’m sorry it took me a while to understand."

You have no idea what their day is like. So you make an effort to say: “Hi, how are you?” And if you remember their names, it means a lot.

If you’re homeless, you’re faceless. You don’t have an identity. So it’s really important that you recognise them, and it registers with them they have been seen.

It doesn’t take much. If you give a smile, it snowballs. You can help give someone back their identity.

That’s why the first golden rule of volunteering is respect. You treat others as you would wish to be treated.

Even little things can matter. For example: how you arrange the biscuits. Sometimes I’ll suggest to a new volunteer that we organise the biscuits a bit better. If we just spill biscuits on a plate, crumbs and all, it doesn’t look very nice. You wouldn’t want to be handed a plate that looks a mess. I don’t want guests to think they’re not worthy of the bit of extra effort it would take to make things look presentable.

A confidence boost

The benefits work two ways.

Volunteers get to see guests as individuals, as human beings. They’re not all drunks or taking drugs. They’re fine. They’re not going to harm you.

At the same time, it works for our guests. It’s good for them to see they’re not being judged. They can find warmth from people. Some have been abused, and it’s important for them to see not everyone is like that.

I am a nanny by profession and was working in a Montessori Nursery. The nursery closed down at the same time my friend invited me along to the night shelter that first night. My boyfriend had just died. And so, on reflection, perhaps I was transferring my affection onto my guests. Out of something bad, came something really good!

It’s incredible to think of my journey. I was a real mouse. I’ve grown in confidence. It took this to bring me out of myself.

I've loved every minute of  volunteering with Glass Door, and I would recommend it highly to anyone who has been thinking of volunteering somewhere special.