I recently went to meet an amazing volunteer who has suffered a great deal of personal tragedy, but who, when it comes to overcoming challenges in her volunteering role, is a remarkably resilient and versatile individual.
Justine volunteers for the Full Circle Food Project, a charity that educates people living in Northumberland about growing food to eat, healthy cooking on a budget and supporting people to lead healthier lifestyles. She volunteers at the projects Ashington allotment every Thursday, cooking up tasty meals for other volunteers and staff. Justine laughingly told me “basically, I cook in a shed!” But, she says “we have lots of fun and I absolutely love doing it”. Describing herself as “the one pot wonder woman!” Justine has proven again and again that she can actually make anything in the one pot. She recently got to cook using a “brand new” Dutch Oven, cooking fresh, home grown produce directly from the allotment. Accessing some of her recipes from the internet, Justine has learned to be quite inventive too creating some unique but very tasty recipes, such as “pickled beetroot with cinnamon” anyone?
Justine has been volunteering for “7 or 8 months now” and jokes about being “head-hunted” for her current role as allotment Chef. Although she acknowledges having a life-long interest in food and cooking, her new culinary journey began when she accompanied her ten-year-old son, to an after school club. The club, run by Full Circle (and funded by Northumberland Children’s Trust) called the ’FEED ME’ project, is a 3-year programme that aims to encourage an interest in food and teach children how to cook. After a couple of months helping out with the class however, Justine was invited to take part in another challenge “to come over and work at the allotments!” which she quickly accepted.
Justine said she brings her young son to the allotments site to help out on occasions, especially when they hold events or during the school holidays and describes having a wonderful Christmas this year. She went on to explain how, just before the holidays, she prepared a “magical” Christmas Dinner for all the volunteers and staff. “I cooked all the chickens in the one pan” and described how they all had great fun making the site look seasonal, decorating the poly-tunnels for the event and setting up the tables. “It was my best Christmas ever!”
Sadly, Justine has been through a lot in the past few years “I lost my sister first in 2013, when she was only 13 and I thought I’d never get over it!” Then, last year not long after the death of her grandmother, her brother also died suddenly when only in his twenties. Justine says she just didn’t know how to cope and describes going through a “rollercoaster of emotions”. Her role as a volunteer, she says has helped her “turn off from my thoughts and everything, it helps me relax… worry less.” It appears that her role also gives Justine time to forget and time to reflect, helping her cope with her loss and associated mental health issues. “It takes me out of myself, if I didn’t have this I would just stay indoors!” Justine has a very good relationship with Jane, a project worker (PW) and feels like “I can talk to her about all of my stuff!” In addition, Justine said she is better able to deal with her thoughts and emotions thanks to a creative writing course and the support of a counsellor.
When asked what her initial expectations of the role were Justine said “I suppose I knew that I would enjoy it because its cooking and I’ve always loved to cook” One of the difficulties at first “was getting the tea order right, but now we have a board so that’s all sorted!” For the most part Justine cooks on her own, but sometimes gets a little help from Jane. She has studied for and completed a Level 2 Food Hygiene Certificate and “I go in now, I got my own set of keys, so I can set up before the others arrive” and “I just get straight on with it really”. She was made to feel very welcome by the allotment team and has developed a close bond with Jane who she describes as “a real character who doesn’t push me” allowing Justine to go at her own pace. “Jane said I give her spirits a lift on a Thursday, she loves coming in ‘cos she said, I make her laugh”
Although confident by nature, given recent traumatic life events, Justine felt a justifiable loss of confidence, becoming apprehensive and nervous. However, she now feels as though she has developed in several ways. Her cooking skills have been expanded thanks to the challenging circumstances and she has personally benefited from the support she receives from Jane and the company of others. One of the positives, she feels, has been her renewed confidence “I can talk to people and have a laugh” whilst at the same time “it gives me something else to think about”. I’m always getting complemented on my cooking too and people thanking me and telling me I’m ‘a life saver’. Wish I could do more than just one day a week if I’m honest”, but Justine also accepts she needs to “build up to it, I’ve still got a lot going on at the moment”
Justine believes her most memorable time was Christmas, which she says was unforgettable. “This was my first Christmas at the allotment, decorating the tables and dressing the poly-tunnels has got to be up there as…well, memorable!” Justine repeated that it had been her “best Christmas ever, cooking chickens in a pan!!” “I thought to myself, only us crackerjacks could do this!” “But we pulled it off! I’m so looking forward to next year…we’re going to go even bigger!!”
When asked what she would say to encourage volunteering Justine said “just get stuck in and you’ll have a laugh” and she offered “I know I’m quite good at helping nervous people learn, so why not come along and I’ll teach you?”
Alternatively, If Justine’s story has inspired you to volunteer more generally but you’re unsure how, please visit Northumberland CVA’s Volunteer Connect database http://www.northumberlandcva.org.uk/volunteering/volunteers to start exploring all our many opportunities.