Amazing volunteers work tirelessly to help flood victims

5th June 2016

Question: What do you get if you cross a leader of the NFU, with the former head of tourism, a solicitor, a magistrate, a nurse, two head teachers and a businesswoman?

Answer: The most amazing team of volunteers.

Cumbria Community Foundation is celebrating Volunteers Week (1-12 June) by shining the spotlight on a group of professionals who have given up their time to review flood grant applications. This week also coincides with the six-month anniversary of Storm Desmond hitting our region.

Willie Slavin, Nick Utting, Chris Tomlinson, Tim Cartmell, Jane Humphries, John Whittle, Hokey Bennett-Jones and Saj Ghafoor have worked tirelessly to help the charity consider flood grant applications since the devastating storms in December 2015.

L-R: Willie Slavin, Nick Utting, Chris Tomlinson, Tim Cartmell, Jane Humphries and John Whittle.
L-R: Willie Slavin, Nick Utting, Chris Tomlinson, Tim Cartmell, Jane Humphries and John Whittle.

Chief Executive Andy Beeforth said: “They are amazing. I don’t think there have been many days since the floods that they haven’t volunteered a few hours each night to discuss the thousands of grant applications we have had. Many of them are trustees or sit on our normal grant panels, but everything they have done for the past six months has been in addition to that and I can’t tell you what a difference they have made. They are my unsung heroes of the floods, having their help meant we could turn applications for grant funding around in 48 hours.”

Chris Tomlinson, 65, is from west Cumbria but now lives in the Kendal area. She was the chief executive of Cumbria Tourism before retiring. Every day at 4pm she sits down to do her ‘homework’ on the grant applications, she said: “I seem to have been considering grants forever, which just emphasises how many people are still suffering extreme hardship in Cumbria. Your home is a place of comfort, your retreat, the place you feel safe and I cannot imagine how desperate it must be to see it underwater. It changes everything. It can never be that place again. Every storm, every rainy night, every flood alert will bring it all back and there will be no peace. It is heartbreaking to read the stories of the folks who need our help. We are not amazing. Those who stoically soldier on rebuilding their lives – they are amazing. I just wish we could do more.”

John Whittle, 67, lives in the Penrith area. He is a retired secondary school headteacher and former chair of Penrith Mountains Rescue Team, who has spent two to three hours every night since December 6 reviewing grant applications. He said: “It has been very moving and very demanding, but one of the best and most humbling experiences I have had.”

Each of them agree that there are a disproportionate number of those affected by the floods that were already living with a degree of hardship. People who live on the ground floor are the elderly, the disabled, single mums with buggies to push. People who cannot retreat upstairs. These are the ones that have lost everything because they live on one level – the flood level.

Jane Humphries, 69, lives in the Carlisle area but was born and bred north of the border. Her working life was spent with statutory and voluntary sector organisations working with mainly children and young people, though she managed an Age Concern organisation at one time. She has been a magistrate for 11 years.

Jane took over as chair of the grants committee from Susan Aglionby in 2010 and spends about two hours every night volunteering.

Jane said: “The big change from my normal grant work has been considering individual applications from people whose lives have been affected, not just organisations. It has struck me just how many people normally have to manage on very small incomes and how being flooded was the ‘last straw.’ We are very privileged to be allowed to enter these lives at a time of great stress, but also to be in a position of being part of this great organisation – Cumbria Community Foundation – that can change lives and make a difference when life is tough.

“The sub-committee has been fantastic to work with – everyone brings their own skills, experience and expertise and together the sum of the parts is greater. No one has been on an ego trip – we have all had the welfare of the Cumbrian community as the focus and it is notable that they are all committed to the long haul.

“There has been a true partnership between the dedicated staff who have gone beyond the call of duty and us volunteers. There is an ability to be creative and constantly evolve as the situation has changed.

“The public response to the appeal has been amazing and the work will leave its mark as it has been rewarding, emotional, humbling, but a privilege.”

Nick Utting, 66, lives in the Ullswater area, he is a retired group secretary for the National Farmers Union.

Nick said: “I have given a couple of hours a night to viewing and considering requests for support from flood victims. These having been first assessed by the flood team. There have been many desperate cases to consider and I have been deeply moved by the plight of so many families hit by the floods in December 2015.”

Tim Cartmell, 68, lives in the Penrith area, he is a retired solicitor who was born in Carlisle and brought up in Brampton. He said: “I joined the flood grants panel the first two weeks after Storm Desmond hit and have given about an hour every other weekday to the process – in the beginning it was much more. I find it really interesting and quite difficult at times, trying to make the right award to help the households who have suffered from the floods. We work in pairs or fours for any grant more than £3,000 and always have the flood teams’ recommendations to help us. Two or more minds is better than one.”

Willie Slavin says he is older than both John and Tim, he used to be a primary school headteacher in Whitehaven and since retiring in 1999 he was the chair of trustees for the Howgill Family Centre, until last year when he stepped down to be a trustee.

He said: “As a direct consequence of working with families in greatest need, I helped to found the West Cumbria Child Poverty Forum, which I have chaired since its inception since 2009. I have also been a trustee of CCF since November 2009, with perfect timing to play a part in the 2009 flood appeal distribution. I am vice-chair of CCF’s Grants Committee and chair of CCF’s West Cumbria Grants Panel.

“I have spent on average three hours a night for three nights a week working on flood grant applications since the beginning of December. The experience has been demanding, invariably rewarding and frequently eye-opening to the level of poverty within our Cumbrian community. Most of the poverty is attributable to a low waged rural economy, evidence of which rarely surfaces statistically. The Flood Recovery Appeal and the grants it has awarded have been vital in supporting our communities following the cutback of public service provision in this post flood period.”

Hokey Bennett-Jones is 62 and has lived in Cumbria for the last 27 years. She often worked overseas as a nurse and has experience of caring for people in remote and very challenging environments. Hokey has been part of CCF’s Grants Committee for a number of years and also supported the flood team back in 2009.

“It takes about 1-3 hours each evening to review and discuss the applications. I am continuously humbled by peoples’ experiences from flooding and I hope, in some way, to have helped them to recover,” said Hokey.

Saj Ghafoor is the baby among the group of wonderful volunteers, she is about to turn 50 in June, she runs HDM Spice Shop in Carlisle with her husband and has four grown up children.

Saj said: “I come from a traditional Pakistani immigrant family and having lived in Pakistan as a teenager I have vivid memories of a very different lifestyle of relative poverty. I have had to be patient and fight for my family, cultural and religious differences and always try to focus on positive similarities instead. I love living in Carlisle, our customers and friends give me and my family immense happiness and sense of belonging within the community we live.

“I believe that if you don’t try, you’ll never know and if you don’t ask you won’t get! Life is about learning, not regretting.

“I have spent about four to six hours a week since January considering grant applications. It has been overwhelming, emotional, heart-breaking and frustrating, but it has made me feel grateful, humbled and privileged to have the opportunity to make a difference and get to work with people who have tirelessly committed their time and effort with such compassion and concern at Cumbria Community Foundation.”

National Volunteers Week runs for 12 days and celebrates the 21 million people who volunteer in the UK every year.