Proving it’s good to talk

Helping hand: Esther Fyffe knew that she wanted to volunteer even before she retired

Thanks to the dedication of people like Woman of the Year nominee Esther Fyffe, volunteering in the province is flourishing, as Jane Hardy discovers

Volunteering is happily alive and well and predates Mr Cameron’s fondness for the Big Society. In Northern Ireland there is a flourishing tradition of charitable and other unpaid work that underpins many important organisations.

BT Woman of the Year in the Voluntary Sector always throws up stories of women giving freely their time, energy and enthusiasm for no other reward than the knowledge that they’re helping people and improving society.

Esther Fyffe (78), is a good example, and outstanding nominee in this section, telling us that since she retired 18 years ago, she has never been busier, working at Northern Ireland’s children’s and adult hospices, helping out at her church and devoting herself to her work as officer in the Boys’ Brigade.

Esther, who is single and has no children, but is an “adopted aunt to lots of nieces and nephews”, lives in Belfast.

She says: “I’m amazed I have been nominated — and very pleased of course. My working week includes working at the reception of the children’s hospice on Monday afternoon, helping out from 6.30-9pm at the patient unit in the adult hospice and doing a shift from 1-5pm on Thursday at the adult hospice reception. I’m also on two committees within the Boys’ Brigade, although I no longer take the boys on trips. And I help out at my church, the Sinclair Seamen’s Mission.

“Because I knew I wouldn’t want to stay at home, I offered my services to these groups before I retired.

“I didn’t know anything about the hospice movement beforehand, and didn’t know anybody who had used their services, but one evening I was at a charity event where a cheque was presented to the NI Hospice. A hospice nurse, Liz Atkinson I think was her name, talked about the work they do, and I was so impressed that I volunteered.

“People who don’t know the place, which is one of the happiest places I’ve ever worked, say: ‘How can you work there?’

“But really there is a great atmosphere. So I don’t find it emotionally draining or depressing. I just love being with people and helping out.

“When I work at the adult unit, I’m one of the people who changes the water in vases, makes sure things look right — and chats to the patients who want to.”

Esther says that it’s important to follow your instinct and only talk when somebody is up for conversation. “But you can tell when that’s the case — for example, if somebody is sitting up or maybe knitting. You’ll admire what they’re doing as a way in and it goes from there.

“We aren’t counsellors though, and if somebody wants a life and death discussion, I recommend that they talk to either a counsellor or the chaplain.

“Before retiring, I worked as a secretary in the Belfast Central Mission, which is a Methodist organisation, although I happen to be Presbyterian.

“When I turned 60, I retired. I had thought of staying on until 65 as I didn’t really want to stop work, but then all the computerised stuff was coming in, and I felt too old to retrain. I didn’t have a leaving party as I didn’t want one, but they generously gave me £4,000, which I invested.

“What do I gain from my voluntary work? Well, whenever you sit with a client or their family and they remember you, say when you bump into families of folk you’ve helped and they say thank you, it’s a good feeling. You may not always know them as you see lots of patients and families, but they’ll remember you. We also get thank you cards sent to the hospice.

“I’ve gained friendships too, and am good friends with a girl who started on reception work at the same time as me. She’s a bit younger, in her sixties, but we get on well.

“Has my hospice work changed my feelings about death? Not really, death isn’t something I think about.”

And Esther adds: “I just regard my work as befriending.”

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