I signed myself to volunteer recently at a Cancer Research UK Race for Life event at Cheltenham racecourse.
Stick me in a high visibility jacket with a radio and I’m your girl (be it with a slightly inflated sense of importance).
It was very windy (hence the squint) and, being Britain, I did get caught out in the rain for a short spell. Observation of the day, racecourses aren’t great for weather protection.
Here are some choice phrases from my time as the very important marshal number six on the 3km, 5km and 10km run:
“I want your tutu!”
“3km that way, 5km that way. Also, check me out with my semaphore arms!”
“You’re doing this so I don’t have to!”
“No such thing as going too slow. Look at me, I’m standing still!”
“It’s very windy here!”
(In response to someone asking for a mid-course vodka tent) “don’t have shots, but lots of shouts – YOU’RE AWESOME!” (It made them laugh.)
A big shout out to everyone across the country who make Race for Life (and similar) events happen and to all those taking part and raising money to support such a worthwhile cause. I’d wholeheartedly recommend volunteering for anyone looking for a fun day out (with a laugh or two along the way).
You’re only as valuable to the community as the last thing you did for it.
That might or might not be a plagiarised quote from someone notable or, more likely, something I just made up after two (large) glasses of wine, but I’ve put it in fancy italics so the point stands.
This is the story of a group. No, actually, not a group, a community. Thrown together by birth, work, or sometimes just passing through; a community of humans who came together under limited expectations, only to save something far greater.
The Birth of a Community
When it comes to community the good deeds you make only go so far. It’s harsh but true. Unlike the good old days, people come and people move on.
The movement of people was one of the reasons I initially established Swindon 18-30 Professionals. People were coming into the town (mostly for work) and then rapidly fleeing as soon as they’d decided it wasn’t a place for them. Not enough to do, not enough of a scene for young people. And I couldn’t blame them; I’d relocated to the area and was feeling the cold shoulder of the real world. A world outside education where you can’t make best friends with people simply by shaking hands or offering out birthday chocolates by means of bribery. The real world just simply isn’t like that, in or outside Swindon.
From Strength to Strength
It came as a massive relief to me when I won the support of a local sponsor to cover the essential website maintenance costs. With the free subscription membership blossomed, and with it the strength of having a group that arguably was the biggest apolitical collective of local voices the town had seen in many years, if ever.
Over the months and years that followed, friendships were made and romances solidified. Multiple engagements, weddings and even babies have been created as a direct impact of the conversations struck up in pubs or over bowling lane rivalries. I was humbled, that feeling that the group was now self sufficient, it didn’t need me to babysit it 24/7 anymore.
Anything But Normal
And then Coronavirus happened.
Our version of normal was now ‘old’ and everything else was now to be referred to as the new version (whatever that was). Social gatherings were illegal, mental health, financial security, a secondary concern compared to the threat of a killer virus. We watched it all slip away, like sand through our fingers.
My steadfast sponsor, like everything else, was forced to close. As their income disappeared overnight, so did the lifeline of Swindon 18-30. I sat on my bed one night, barely able to sleep. Years of hard work, of creating and building, ended before people had even the chance give it a decent send off. I was left hollow, wounded but without the blood to show for it.
“Sh*t Happens, Get Over It”
I proposed to the leadership team setting up a fundraising page. A last-ditch hope that we could scrape together enough to cover the next six months of fees (around £100).
I did some research, compared the options eventually went for GoGetFunding which was one of the few which let fundraisers withdraw money, even if they don’t make the target set on the page. This in mind, I went for a over optimistic £260 which would cover costs for a year, plus the fundraising page fees. I hit submit, the page went live.
I sent a frank and blunt email to all the members with a link to donate money and walked away. A watched pot never boils and I couldn’t bear to spend a wasted evening watching a page that got no engagement. In five years I’d never asked anything of my members, new and old, so to be begging for money now? I was adamant that they’d see me as being unrealistic.
The Kind of Thing That Only Happens in Movies
I retuned to my laptop and was taken with the number of emails in my inbox. “Probably spam,” I thought, but I was wrong. Very wrong. Because instead of the junk mail I was expecting, all the emails were notifications from the fundraising website.
Donations came in thick and fast and at values that almost made me want to cry. I probably would have if not for the personalised messages getting to me first.
There I’d been, working my socks off and building up a strong leadership team and thinking no one had noticed. That no one had particularly cared for all the effort we put in. The words I was reading now, they proved me wrong.
“Every penny well deserved!”
“An amazing organisation, I hope it carries on long into the future.”
“This group helped me take control of my social anxiety and build my confidence.”
“I owe so much to Swindon 18-30. So many incredible people I wouldn’t have even crossed paths with if it were not for the events put on.”
“Well done Alice! Keep up the good work and long live the mermaids!”
In just over 24 hours we hit my target for funding, but yet the money kept pouring in, it seemed everyone wanted to show their support and ensure the group stayed alive. And this wasn’t just current members, people who’d long left Swindon donated, keen to ensure its legacy for new batches of young professionals.
For the second time that week I found myself unable to sleep, although this time it was out of happiness and relief. The group had validated its existence, it had an army of young people prepared to fight tooth and nail to keep it running.
Stop the Press!
The local press release was published the following week with a number of last minute updates. The original purpose, framed to act as a plea for help was now repurposed as an awareness piece, to reach out to those who felt alone and isolated. That at the end of all this there would be a place to safe place to meet and engage with other people.
Like everything that happens in my life, there had to be a catch to all this positivity. For me, this came when the webpage was bombarded with fraudulent donations. The alarm bells came when the donations were coming in tiny denominations (usually £1) and from people I didn’t recognise. Later it transpired that these payments were likely stolen cards being tested out prior to the thief either selling them on or using them for bigger transactions. Wanting to do the right thing (and wanting to avoid severe penalties), I promptly returned the money back to the payment card, only to then be charged a handling fee for doing so!
I spoke with both customer services on GoGetFunding and then PayPal, voicing frustrations. They both pointed fingers at the other, both refused to acknowledge the faults in their system, both saw no reason to refund me for doing the right thing. I enchanced secrity controls, as per PayPal’s recommendation, which made things worse. The next morning I had ten transactions to refund. It was at that point, stressed and deeply angry, that I was sadly forced to close the funding page ahead of time.
If there is one top tip I can place in all of this it is to not use GoGetFunding. The commission is less but damn, you pay more in blocking fraudulent payments in the long run!
However, all said and done the final figure at the point of close spoke for itself. The group had done it, we had enough to keep going throughout the tough months to come.
The Future is Bright…
On the far side of all this (whenever that might be) it’s confirmed, that there will be a group and place for people to call their social home. A place to buy a pint or two and give toast to everything that’s made us who we are today.
Here’s to the silent supporters and the ‘this one’s on me’ drink buyers. Long live the donators of good causes, the ones who have the vision to see beyond the news headlines and the weeks on a calendar. From my heart to yours, thank you. Thank you so much.
A recent write up I did for a volunteering day some of my colleagues went on. NB – names and some details have been changed.
Banking on Social Investment
There are many reasons why people work for the same Financial services provider as myself but I’ll be quite frank with you, a mini-seminar on all the places a use-by date can be displayed on a tin of Tuna, that didn’t make my top three.
‘It can be on the top, the bottom, the label…’
It felt less like I was talking to a Project Manager with years of experience, but more my company’s answer to a WI revival.
I’d caught up with Lily* to find out more about the Risk Squad’s recent social investment day at the Swindon Food Collective. An independent food bank with over sixty volunteers, the charity offers food parcels to people who are facing a crisis and feeds almost 5,500 people a year. Sharon was part of a ten strong team of colleagues from across the Squad who, for one day, decided to ditch the board packs for packing boxes in very fetching hi-vis jackets.
Everyone had a role to play, from food voucher administration, to checking the sell-by dates on food-stuffs extended beyond May 2020. The contents of each food parcel were surprisingly strict; 80 tea bags, 500g pasta, meat content of 40%, firm rules needed to ensure fairness to everyone receiving a parcel.
‘Did you know those tinned Fray Bentos pies don’t have a high enough meat quantity to pass the test?’ Sharon asked.
‘Exactly! I didn’t know they still existed either!’
I wasn’t going to comment that I felt quite sure I had an emergency Bentos pie in the back of my kitchen cupboard.
‘And as for Bob*, what was he up to?’
‘Oh, he found himself at home sorting through the toiletries.’
‘Bob? On shampoo?’
Lily laughed. ‘It was his happy place!’
The more I chatted with Lily over a vending machine coffee the more I wished I’d been there to have seen it for myself. A well-oiled team, where everyone had a part to play and took on the tasks with a sense of collective spirit. It’s perhaps no surprise that by the end of the day the group managed to sort through more than the large number of boxes set aside by the charity.
‘Did Bob tell you he’s signed us up to help out next year?’
‘Wait, he was referring to December 2020?’ I responded in surprise.
‘I’ve already booked my spot. It was so much fun, and it got us talking about a lot of issues sounding austerity and homelessness. We learnt a lot.’
As I sat in one the office’s comfy seat areas with the poster-clad notice boards and suited colleagues, I couldn’t help but feel that some days my life was a little removed from reality.
‘You know, I think I’ll sign myself up too,’ I said to Lily as we started wondering back to our desks. ‘A year to prepare, I even think I might have something in my cupboard I can bring with me…’
You can find out more about the Swindon Food Collective by visiting their website:
The following morning I received an email from the dating facilitators to announce that the tick system was now open for submitting my yays and nays. My two friends submitted their ticks within half an hour of the email coming through alongside nearly all of the guys. I however felt strangely disengaged with the idea of rushing to make my decision, I already knew what my responses would be.
Other than Mr Dominatrix, the man who thought (and failed) to weird me out, everyone had submitted their responses by 20:00. I was sat cross legged with my laptop resting on my calves, donning my Gap jogging bottoms and a baggy Southampton hoody (the one someone gave me in the back of a disgusting nightclub in my student days, but that’s another story). I set my cup of tea down and opened up the laptop.
My likes and dislikes were completed swiftly and without much thought. No, no, no, no, no… I ticked no to all the eleven men I’d been on speed dates with the night before. Next came the mild curiosity to find out which, if any, of the men had liked me. To find that out all I had to do was hit the big submit button. The system tried to get me to rethink my decision but I overruled it. The men had all been pleasant enough, but Alice just was not interested.
I opened up the next screen to see five guys had ticked yes to me. Five guys that would either be gutted or indifferent that the feeling wasn’t reciprocated. Three of the five guys had also ticked yes to one of my other friends which led me to believe in the age of quick hit love they’d get over me pretty quickly. My friends and I were all were equally fine with sharing updates and matching,texting and dating overlapping men (or in my case taking my off-casts). The girl chat continued late into the night and I went to bed content that at least my two friends had better luck than me.
I woke up the next morning and underwent the normal routine to get myself in the right mental state for work. I logged onto my work laptop at 7:55 with a strong Americano in hand and pulled myself, sip by sip, into a mental state fit for work.
I made it to mid-morning before I started reflecting on things outside my work. I started thinking about my dating life, about how in Swindon it was non-existent and how in London it was over-existent. How repetitive and tedious the dating apps were, what with all the constant swiping and then, assuming you even got any matches, how tediously dull the small talk was only for people to disappear, blurt out something inappropriate or stand you up on a date. All things I’d experienced far too often in the past year. Most of all how much time I was wasting on something completely unproductive and unfulfilling.
The writing had been on the wall months, if not years. I’d already been banned from apps Tinder and Happn after trying to convince too many men to read my blog (causing me to be wrongly reported as a bot or fake profile). I’d become fatigued with the premise and the creepy men that I actually took the bans as a blessing in disguise.
I’m single but happily so. If I can buy and run a house by myself, go on holiday by myself, have fun with my existing friends then why trawl through the 4am matches in desperation to find someone just to validate I mean something to someone? Some people have insecurities and need to hop from relationship to relationship, and good for them. But for me my independence means so much that the idea of losing that makes me do this inside:
(Not an attractive look on dates.)
So why on earth am I trying to force myself into a serious relationship? Why am I digging out and enhancing photos to make myself look more appealing? I know I’m awesome so why am I trying to make men see that from just a handful of photos? And the same for men – who gave me the right to judge men in a similar vein when I’ve always said it’s not how I would find or build a connection with anyone – man or woman, relationship or friend.
I want to do more with my life while I can, I want to write more, do more, be more. I want to think “wow, I did something good this evening” or have a lazy, evening where I can watch rubbish TV guilt free, instead of beating myself up because I didn’t get any matches on Bumble.
That has settled it, I’m deleting the dating profiles, removing the apps and focusing on me. I’m not saying I’ll never return to dating apps and I’m certainly not about to become a nun, but right now I need the detox. If someone happens upon my path then I at least know it’s natural and, dare I say it, fate.
I’ve signed up to a writing course and am now dedicating my energies into that alongside my career, Swindon 18-30 and volunteering at my local Samaritans branch. I genuinely won’t/don’t have the time for time wasters.
Watch the clip below. Right now I’m Owen Wilson’s character but with time and dedication I want to become more like Corey Stoll’s (aka Hemingway).
I wrote this and The Time I Discovered I was a Dominatrix in mid June so by the time you read these I’ll already have removed myself from proactive dating and be very much stuck into my writing course. If for the time being I don’t post as much on this blog, you know why.
From July to October 2018 a small team of us from my organisation worked with Booth House, Salvation Army Centre in Swindon (Wiltshire, UK) to help increase revenue and awareness of one of their social enterprises called The Sandwich People. As part of our activities I spent time volunteering with the charity and even wrote an article off the back of my experiences.
Below is a video summarising what Booth House do, specifically the two enterprises Recycles and The Sandwich People:
Three months after we delivered our final report and presentation to staff and volunteers, myself and the team are so pleased to see how the social enterprise has implemented some of our recommendations and come on leaps and bounds in such a short space of time. Three things in particular which stand out for me:
The Sandwich People have set up an Instagram account and are more effectively using social media to get their message across.
As per our suggestions, the management have refined the menu based on the cost of production versus sales.
Starting this week, the centre manager has informed me that The Round (the daily sandwich delivery around offices) now have the equipment to take contactless payment. This is a big deal as before sales were entirely dependant on office workers carrying cash (which often they didn’t).
The social enterprise is also seeking collaborative groups and communities to help spread the word and foster a supportive environment for a number of local charities. I was recently asked to help contribute towards a case study article, the results of which you can find on the Swindon Social Enterprises website
It was great working with the guys at Booth House, as stakeholders they were infinitely helpful and useful, as human beings trying to make a difference they were complete saints. The residents and volunteers certainly taught me a thing or two (including how to make a chicken salad wrap) and it was an experience I will not forget in a hurry.
Recently myself and a small team have been working closely with a local charity in Swindon (Wiltshire, UK). The Sandwich People (headed by The Salvation Army) are a small catering enterprise that help those experiencing hardship retrain and get themselves back on track.
Having recently spent time volunteering with these guys (hence the classic local paper pose) I can vouch that everyone from the management to those producing and selling really do put their all into what they do.