The Virgin Volunteer - a piece by Peter Black

Friends member and supporter has recently started Volunteering at the Friends are his first impressions

Red carpet, banners, balloons, brass bands, fireworks, confetti, ticker tape, paparazzi, telly-helis, crowds of adoring fans, staff bowing and curtseying, champagne corks popping, the mayor ready to greet me with a bouquet of red roses – not a single one of these awaited me as I arrive on a wet June afternoon for my debut shift, my maiden voyage as a Saturday volunteer in The Friends' Shop, Kemp Town.

Never mind; my temporary delusions of grandeur are entirely dispelled by the warm greeting from Assistant Manager smiling Jack Lynn (aka The Boss). His welcome to me is fit for royalty.

I am just one of several part-timers at this charity shop run by Friends of Brighton & Hove Hospitals; the other one today is the unforgettable Joe. It seems volunteers are a bit scarce at weekends, so me being here might fill a gap. The shop, of course, has been there forever, a real community hub and asset. A recent makeover has modernised it, and the two young managers, Cat and Jack, have transformed it. Quite frankly, without the changes, I would never have signed up.

Why join? Well, the NHS, especially the Royal Sussex County Hospital, has been very good to me; when you enjoy their hospitality as much as I've done recently, you see first-hand how fund-raising charities like ours pay for essential equipment the NHS can't otherwise afford. So, this is my minuscule contribution to keeping the NHS, and all who sail in it, afloat.

Jack gives me my first job, tidying the garment rails, a never-ending activity; plenty of job security, then. Eventually all are perfectly aligned, with military precision, in size order – hangars to the front, buttons all done up –   until the next customer comes along.

Ah yes, the customers! Our raison d'etre, we'd be nothing without them. As an ex-retailer, I know only too well that they're the VIPs. The lines blur; shoppers are a mix, including donors, volunteers, patients and ex-patients (like me). and range from the six-year old who successfully haggles with Jack for a price-cut, to the ever-present dog-ladies, to the inebriated guy who spends ages in the changing-room, buys nothing, and leaves a pile of clothing on the floor for someone – i.e. me   – to pick up. Then there are the regulars, some of whom I know from having lived in the area for years. Talking to everyone, even if it's only a smile and a “hallo”, is easily the most fun part of the job; they all deserve recognition. For some lonely people, the only reason they come in is for a chin-wag, and we're happy to indulge them. I see it as great PR, because the happier we make everyone, the more likely they'll return. But I must, must, must learn to remember names...

Anyway, on to a back-room task; emptying donations-bags, and sorting and labelling the contents, another unending labour of love. It's surprisingly hard work until. I'm told, you get used to it: I wouldn't fancy doing more than one shift a week – by comparison, my sweaty gym sessions are a pushover. Next time, I'll take paracetamol in advance to prevent backache.

Stuff arrives several times a day, a constant tide of generosity from well-wishers. There's a bit of jargon in the air; you have to learn the lingo. For instance, I'll bet you don't know what “ragging” is? Me neither, until Jack explains it's putting unsaleable goods into recycling bags. How do you decide what's saleable or otherwise? “Be brutal!” commands Jack. Every so often, the recycling firm collects the bags and pays for them by weight.

It's now 5.30, the last lap, and time to treat myself to a bit of personal shopping. A bargain here, a snip there – both further sweetened by the volunteer's discount – and I'm well happy. Finally at 6pm, it's all over: a four-hour shift can be an eternity if you're not enjoying it, but I'm delighted that mine has passed so quickly. As I walk down the street looking forward to next Saturday, a last delusion enters my head: how on earth can they possibly hope to manage for an entire week without me....

copyright © Peter Black 2019

About the author

Peter Black is a Friends Shop volunteer and supporter of the charity.

Many thanks for your ongoing generous support for helping us improve the airway equipment in the hospital

Dr Kate Regan, Consultant in Critical Care and Anaesthesia, BSUH

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