I felt shock, disbelief, sadness and anger as I stared at the TV in my Mumbai hotel room. I watched the Grenfell Tower as it burned just a short distance from my home in London. An urgency erupted inside of me to go home and serve in some way. It was June 14th, 2017. At this point I had been traveling for over 7 months and I had not been living in the UK for almost 3 years. I felt ready to be still and reconnect with my community.
I wrapped up my travels and got back to London in October. I noticed in the press that the The Rugby Portobello Trust (RPT) had become the first point of contact for Grenfell survivors. They organized a donation fund to help the people who had lost their friends, family, homes and all their belongings.
The Rugby Portobello Trust is a charity that helps people in the community. Initially set up for young people, but it is now supporting all age groups and over the years has merged with other organisations to broaden outreach and strengthen internal support.
Almost 10 years prior, shortly after moving to Notting Hill in 2008, I contacted RPT with an interest in becoming a volunteer. I loved the vibrancy of the area. It also showed me my acute lack of awareness that my neighbours were living a very different existence to me. I wanted to connect more with my community. Possibly even more than that, I had just broken up with a live-in boyfriend. The void of the relationship and impending feelings of loneliness were making me want to fill my time with worthwhile distractions.
For a year, every Thursday evening [at RPT] I would assist with a cookery class for young adult locals. Some were from disadvantaged homes and others were refugees who wanted to learn about cooking British foods. Then we would all eat together afterwards. The conversations flowed and I enjoyed learning about their lives.
Just as I started Chic&Seek, one of my first and best clients happened to be another volunteer that I met through the charity. My business gained quick momentum, I became very busy and it was time to give up my voluntary position. Over the years, I remained connected with the charity. Each year we would have a one-week work experience placement for one of the young people at RPT. In March 2012, I held a big fashion event to raise money for the charity. Where did I get all that energy from?!?
Fast forward another 5 years. Chic&Seek was built and sold. I was now back in London with a different focus with time and energy that I wanted to contribute. I called the volunteer co-ordinator Catherine Moss at RPT and explained that I wasn’t sure what my long term plans were and that I would be available for 3 months if they needed extra help. Since I was an old affiliate I was able to get started right away. There was something very grounding about re-entering a community of people, doing the same thing in the same place.
One of the strange things I found about living in a different country is that a lot of things changed in my internal world. But the world I left behind somehow has a reassuring continuum. I feel very grateful for that. I also feel a little guilty that I’m not ready to put my roots down back in London and pursue a steadier and more consistent existence – not for now anyways. But whilst I am in one place, I have no problem with being reliable and accountable!
Catherine suggested I spend some of my time with ‘Athena’ – an afterschool club for girls between the ages of 11 – 16. I also assisted a few times with ‘Magic Mums’ group – an excellent program for Mums to come in and have group counselling whilst their small children are looked after by staff members and volunteers such as myself.
Just before Christmas The Duchess of Cambridge, another Catherine 🙂 came to visit the Magic Mums group. Her appearance was partly to commend the support offered by the Trust to the local community in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire and to acknowledge the work the do in the community as a whole. I did not get to see her, but I was in the office after her visit and the excitement of meeting her was very palpable amongst everyone at RPT. You can read more about her visit on the RPT blog.
After a couple of weeks Catherine, the volunteer co-ordinator asked if I would manage the logistics of the ‘Shoe Box Appeal.’ I agreed and she dutifully walked me around the office introducing my new task and every person winced. How bad of a job could this be? I can see how for full time employees this could be an arduous task. Since I was popping in and out, it was not all consuming and I thoroughly enjoyed being of help and working with everyone involved.
What is the Shoe Box Appeal? Primary school children fill a shoe box with gifts to give to other children from deprived homes. The boxes are labelled with ‘Girl’ or ‘Boy’ and the age range. I coordinated collecting the boxes from each school and then distributing them to various branches of the charity. It serves not only London but it is part of P3 Charity which also provides services in Wales, Scarborough and the Shire counties in the north of England. I was invited to one school assembly which was the sweetest thing and it felt like a real privilege to be included.
Whilst the topic of Grenfell has become a complex and political battle, it also reflects the strong sense of community that this special area beholds. In the words of the Chief Executive, Mark Simms in his Christmas email, he wrote “on the 14 June I saw some terrible things, heard terrifying accounts of the fire BUT I also witnessed humanity at its finest.”
On 14th December 2017, to mark 6 months since the fire, I joined the march which has been called ‘Justice for Grenfell’ and has been taking place each month. It was powerful to march in silence and it was an opportunity for me to pay my respects to those people who died in such a terrifying and untimely way and to also acknowledge all the firefighters who worked so bravely to combat the fire.
I felt compelled to write this blog, not so much to document what I’ve been doing, but more because I feel passionate about the benefits of service. It’s not about guilt for my privileged life, which to be honest I used to have. It’s about the feeling of connection I get which makes it a win-win situation for both the giver and receiver.
We live in times of increasing loneliness and depression. I believe that people who suffer with mental health issues and/or the effects of daily stress would benefit greatly from donating their time to being of service. It improves well-being while supporting others.
From my travels in India, I felt inspired by the set up at Mother Teresa’s House. The informality of being able to help was brilliant to me. The problem we face here in the UK is the red tape that makes it time consuming to get started. There’s criminal checks, form filling, interviews and minimum requirements. I get it, of course I do, sadly there are too many nutters in the world or people who find it hard to show up consistently. But I do see a way, I have a vision for people to connect with their neighbours, to help one another even in small ways and that it be easy to do so.
We have to keep one another positively inspired. There are good people in the world with kind hearts. So much of our media fills us with fear and tells us that this planet is a bad place. I too can get consumed with the negativity. No wonder there is an anxiety epidemic in modern society. Volunteering reminds me to be grateful for the things that I take for granted in my life. It’s a ‘leveller.’ It helps me put my worries in perspective or at least forget about them whilst I am present doing something completely different and perhaps out of my comfort zone. I get to forget about my world and focus on another’s.
It is a beautiful thing to witness empathic people who want to give. People who have good hearts, full of love and I feel the ripple effects of positive energy. There were times when it was a struggle to go out on a dark and cold evening but I would always come home energised and feeling good. Just like when I’m in the company of a fun and positive friend!
Upcoming Fund Raising Events at RPT:
Kensington Vintage Decor Show Monday 5th -Tuesday 6th March
The Brain Game Thursday 26th April
London Marathon Sunday 22nd April
Hilton Fundraiser Saturday 12th May
Opera Holland Park Wednesday 13th June
Portobello Dinner Tuesday 25th September (TBC)
Christmas Market. Tuesday 13th -Wednesday 14th November (TBC)