The reluctant volunteers

Sarah is the charity shop’s manager which, she admits as I interview her in the empty back room, has come as a bit of a surprise to her. “A year or so ago I couldn’t have thought of anything worse. I’d never shopped in a charity shop and, when I was a teenager, I’d never, ever have stepped foot in one.”

She chose her A-levels with the thought of studying law but within a few months of college decided it was not for her and packed it in. So, at the age of 17 she got a job as a cleaner at a Pontins Holiday Camp. A year later, when she was ‘legal’, she took up bar work at Wetherspoons and worked there for the next four years.

Three years ago she was helping her friend set up a New York-style diner in the town. She enjoyed the work: employing people, organising rotas, ordering the food. Their first summer was a good one, everything was going well. Then a long winter: “Brixham is like a ghost town in winter,” says Sarah. “The second summer was not good and really you have to have a good summer or you’re not going to survive the following winter.”

While she was at the diner she met Rachel who she had been at school with. Rachel had left to go to university but was now back, looking for work. Sarah offered her a job, a relationship developed, they found a place to share. They’ve lived together now for 18 months.

“Are you okay with me mentioning all that?” I ask.

“Oh, yeah, fine. So my friend decided to get out while she was ahead and so both Rachel and I were made redundant together. I was used to working, had always worked and so hated finding myself on jobseekers’ allowance.”

“What was it like trying to find a job in Brixham?”

“I thought, how hard could it be? I had lots of transferable skills that I had built up through my catering experience but, because I had decided I didn’t want to do bar or kitchen work, and I have no other qualifications, there was nothing.

“My CV was excellent. My applications were always spot-on but, out of probably 200 jobs I applied for, I only got one interview.”

“Two hundred applications?”

“Yes. Either letters, emails or phone calls. It was awful, just to be knocked back and rejected that many times. It really got me down, so much so that I had to start taking antidepressants.”

“Did you think of moving elsewhere to find work?”

“I was born in Brixham and all my family are here. So it would have taken a lot for me to have moved away. But I have no qualifications, I don’t have a degree, so do I really stand more chance somewhere else? It was horrible. I’m still taking the antidepressants now.”

At the time a government initiative called the Community Task Force compelled all those who had been looking for a job for over six months to take on voluntary work. “To keep our benefit we had to agree to volunteer for 25 hours a week and travel to Torbay to do a weekly five-hour supervised job search. Thankfully they realised we were actively looking for work so they didn’t make us go to Torbay.

“We absolutely hated the idea of doing voluntary work. We joked that they’d throw us in a charity shop which is really quite ironic now, isn’t it?”

Sarah and Rachel had noticed that YES were converting their new bulding and arranged a meeting after responding to the ‘help wanted’ signs outside The Edge. “Usually people offer to do a couple of hours a week and we turned up and said we’ve got to do 25 hours a week, each. Angela and Chris said, yes please!

“We were really nervous the first week, it was daunting walking into a new place, not knowing anyone. We were lucky to have got a placement together, at least we knew each other.”

The extra help was appreciated by the YES team. They had just moved in to their converted church and there was lots to do. Sarah and Rachel got stuck in sweeping, mopping, clearing rubbish.

“Everyone was very welcoming and within a couple of weeks we felt part of the team and were given other things to do. Last October we organised a massive Halloween party. Neither of us had done anything like that before, so we’d gone from sweeping the floors to organising big fundraising events. It was fantastic and we could both feel our confidence returning.”

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