Guest blog from John Muirhead, Volunteer Coordinator from FareShare.
Cyrenians run the FareShare franchise for Central and South East Scotland. We redistribute 7 tonnes of surplus food per week from producers and suppliers (like supermarkets and bakeries) to organisations working with vulnerable people (such as residential homeless projects and community youth groups).
James* has been a volunteer with us at FareShare for a few years now. I met with him the other day to chat about his story – past, present and future – and to explore the part of his life where FareShare and he met. As he shared his experience with us my thoughts turned to that old dilemma, possibly familiar to many of us: what’s important here at FareShare, a sense of community or being a place of work?
I was struck by how much of James’s past affects his present, which affects his future; there’s a flow between these dimensions, back and forth. He told me how he had spent much of his life creating and recreating himself, from being a plumber, then a roofer, etc. But when the foundation of his relationships started to shake, and when what he trusted began to change, he “didnae like it”.
On the outside he would relate to people as a happy-go-lucky person, but this “wisnae what was happening on the inside”. Self-medication was his coping strategy, his means of escape. But, looking back, he realised that “what was driving me was what had happened to me in the past”.
After coming through therapy, a sense came into play that he had a choice – he didn’t have to follow the same escape route, but could instead ask himself, “what is it I want fae life?” He was encouraged by a support worker that volunteering could be helpful in bringing stability, and he came to volunteer with us at FareShare. That first year he went from strength to strength, moving from tentative steps in learning the job and making friends, to taking the initiative, doing jobs off his own back, and leading others. He was “part of something, got some responsibility” and was “buzzing”. He went from calling it “volunteering” to calling it “working”! Having a sense of purpose was important to James.
I remember that time when James was “buzzing” as a time when we almost had more food coming in than we could store, running around trying to get orders ready to go out in the van on time. There wasn’t much ‘soft touch’ time with the volunteers amongst the busyness. James’s hard work, amongst the other volunteers’, was invaluable.
As time went by the team settled in with James a part of it. However, as we became accustomed to his energy and enthusiasm for the work, what we weren’t aware of was how his home life was eating away at him. His son was back living with him, but James was losing the battle of trying to get him into a rhythm of regular school attendance. James couldn’t understand why his son was taking to drink and drugs when his upbringing was better than James’s had been!
Then James got a virus, which floored him, and he stopped volunteering at FareShare. He spiralled down into depression, and ‘sofa surfed’ for a while. In hindsight, James reflected that he couldn’t cope with working and dealing with his son. His son’s behaviour was triggering difficult memories from his own upbringing, with a schizophrenic stepfather; memories he couldn’t hide from anymore. However, he mused that “if you guys hadn’t been in touch I would have been even more isolated”. The calls from FareShare had “kept me in the loop, wanting to get back”.
Happily, after 2 years off sick, James is now back volunteering with us. He has grown in those 2 years away, realising for himself the benefits of sharing what’s going on inside – sharing “helps people to understand”. And he’s realised that he had been overdoing work to escape from his problems. There were a couple of panic attacks when he first came back, being overwhelmed by all the people asking after him, but he knows now when to take himself away for some personal space.
I asked him if we had asked too much of him in that first year. “Yes, but it’s down to me to decide what’s enough, but I didnae”. Maybe we could have done better by James. However, he’s noticed a change in us over those years too; “it’s more friendly and relaxed; it’s light again… and the banter’s good!” (So difficult to get the banter right!).
James ended our meeting by saying that, at FareShare, “there’s a work ethic but there’s no!” What I take from that is that it’s not whether it’s a sense of community or a place of work which is more important, but looking after the flow between the two that counts. I was impacted by how much we are shaped by those who we work beside. Perhaps James sums it up best by saying, “It’s feeling part of something that’s important!”
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity