Volunteering with you changed my life – thank you!

Julia Shipston Julia Shipston

Katie tweeted us out of the blue to say: ‘I trained with u 10 years ago! Now I host #refugees.  The experience changed my life for the better. Thank u!’  So of course, we wanted to know more – and she wrote back to tell us her amazing story:

In 2002 I moved to Harlesden (Brent) and wanted to get more involved in the local community. I was also looking to develop more skills than my marketing job at Sky TV could offer so I found a volunteer position on Do-it.org, working for the Director of Drama Workhouse, a charity giving vulnerable/disadvantaged children and adults access to arts. This led to several things:

Within 12 months I had handed back the laptop, phone, company car and AmEx card  to my boss and became self-employed (much to the distress of my parents who thought I was making a terrible mistake!). Drama Workhouse became my first and longest standing client.

I gained tonnes of experience and had responsibilities I never would have held at a large corporation. Plus I had the flexibility and more time on my hands to do complete courses and extra training so in early 2005 I took part in a 3-4 day training as a volunteer at TimeBank, on its Time Together project supporting asylum seekers and refugees. The training itself, as well as the experiences shared by the other participants opened up a whole different world to me.  I realised there was far more to life than one revolving around London social drinking – as fun as that may be! Within a few weeks after the training I was partnered with a Palestinian woman. Sadly we only met a few times before she was rehoused elsewhere. 

Sometime afterwards I decided to move to Berlin and so didn’t get paired with anyone else in London. But the training wasn’t in vain because almost exactly 10 years later to the day, I embraced the opportunity to continue what I’d started at TimeBank. In 2015 a million refugees arrived in Germany and I felt compelled to do everything possible so in June 2015 we offered our spare room as emergency accommodation. Almost immediately, Alyssa, a young pregnant Nigerian woman, arrived on our doorstep with just a carrier bag. It was an experience that included learning about the best of Nigerian culture (gizzard, Nollywood and dancing!)

She was then sent to another area of Germany, leaving a huge gap in our household that was soon filled by a Syrian English teacher who has since become like a brother.

When Alyssa from Nigeria stayed with us she wanted to learn to cycle. A few other women I met asked me about lessons too. Finding none, I set up a cycling group in 2015. Since then I have built up a pool of over 100 (female) volunteers who have trained over 100 women to cycle. Participants who learned to cycle now attend as volunteers training other women. I also organised a crowdfunding for my 40th birthday to give out bikes, helmets and locks.

The cycling groups soon led to communal picnics, and then when we were wondering what to do in the winter months we hit on the idea of preparing and cooking food for homeless people. You can see our video here: https://www.youtube.com/embed/eTUs-xpTeAM

Around the time I started the cycling lessons I decided to stop being self employed and was rather unsuccessfully job hunting. It was one of my cycling ladies from Damascus who recommended me for a job at the German Red Cross where I then gained a six month contract working in a refugee camp.  I was then able to springboard to my current position, my dream job setting up refugee projects at Friends of the Earth Germany back in Berlin. So yet again, one way or another, volunteering leads to paid employment!

However in January this year I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I truly believe that I am able to cope with all that has been thrown at me since then because of what I have learned from all my new friends. Their strength and ability to be resilient has inspired me and helped me to remain positive and determined.

Our thoughts are with Katie and all best wishes for a full recovery. And if she has inspired you to get involved in our Time Together project, take a look here.

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