Volunteers Week – Heidi Mulvey

This week is Volunteers’ Week (3-9) June. In this interview we hear from Heidi Mulvey, who has been a volunteer at Jimmy’s for just over four years, first serving meals and washing up, and later running reading, poetry and creative writing sessions, which were so enjoyed by our residents, and an important way for them to express themselves.

Find out more about Heidi’s experience volunteering at Jimmy’s below.

Why did you start volunteering with those experiencing homelessness?

Jimmy’s and Wintercomfort both offer diverse opportunities for volunteers with different skills and availability to get involved in their work. I signed up to volunteer in early 2020 because the amount of rough sleeping around Cambridge seemed to have increased so much and I wanted to do something practical and contribute in some way. My first volunteering involved serving dinners and doing dishes, which was an easy and relaxed way to get talking to people. About a year later I started running reading, poetry and creative writing sessions and I loved how open people were, interested in discovering new poets and enthusiastic to express their feelings and experiences in writing. Recently I’ve joined regular sessions for women who meet for creative activities, company and moral support. There’s a lot of laughter and chat at these sessions and it’s a really caring, inclusive environment.

What did you learn by spending time with residents?

I’ve learned so much from spending time with residents and getting to know them has been a privilege. When you walk past someone sitting in a doorway, it’s easy to look away and not consider what brought them there. Stories vary hugely, of course, but the camaraderie and kindness, humour and resilience of the people I’ve got to know are a common thread. Many have gone through trauma and troubles that have led to relationships breaking down, leaving the home, substance abuse, mental health issues and sometimes prison. I’ve learned that many struggled at school and missed out on education, which meant that opportunities were closed to them later. I’ve learned how much people look out for each other and only they know what it’s like to live on the street. I’ve learned how much it means to enjoy the things most of us take for granted, like laundering your clothes, having a shower and a hot meal. Seeing people regularly builds trust and helps develop relationships which leads to more meaningful conversations. I’ve learned that the professional expertise and services available across Cambridgeshire are incredibly well joined up, working together to provide the right support for individuals, whether it’s a bed in a shelter, help filling out forms, or access to medical appointments or counselling.

Has your time volunteering with those experiencing homelessness changed how you relate to people rough sleeping?

Before I started volunteering, I’m ashamed to say I was a bit nervous of speaking to people on the street. I never knew if it was ok to give them money or whether it was better to ask if they’d like a sandwich and a hot drink. Now I have regular chats around town, about what’s going on in people’s lives, things in the news, ordinary stuff you’d talk to anyone about. When I was running poetry sessions, people would sometimes ask if I could bring something specific next time. Some people’s talent for creative writing has been incredible (Dave, Marcus and Jordan, in case you’re reading, thanks for sharing your fabulous writing!). Now I really appreciate being able to relate to an individual about their interests, seeing what makes them brilliant and unique, and not just seeing their homelessness.

What would you say to someone thinking about volunteering with people experiencing homelessness?

If you’ve ever been unsure whether it’s ok to give someone money, if you’ve ever felt bad about how many people you see in sleeping bags in doorways, consider volunteering. Everyone I’ve worked with has been so appreciative of volunteers giving their time. People don’t just need a bed and a roof over their heads, they need a sense of community and belonging and not to feel ignored or disrespected; they need company and people to chat with about common interests, to be connected with life around them, invited to take part, to be valued, to have a chance to contribute. It’s easy to find out what activities your local homeless charities are offering and I’d encourage you to try anything you can contribute to. And if you can’t volunteer just now, just stop next time you see someone sitting on the pavement and say hello. You’ll make a huge difference to the people you meet and they’ll make a huge difference to you.

Interested in volunteering find out more here.