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Volunteering for Cancer Focus is giving us new zest for life

The charity has launched its drive for voluntary workers, who are needed to raise money to provide crucial services for those living here with cancer. Alison Fleming talks to four people about their work for the organisation and why Christmas is a particularly poignant time for them

Christmas is a busy time of year for most of us, but one when the need for volunteers has never been greater.

Local charity Cancer Focus Northern Ireland urgently needs at least 100 new volunteers in the North Down, Belfast and Lisburn areas to take part in bag packs and street collections to raise money to fund research, build awareness and provide crucial services for families here living with a cancer diagnosis.

If you can spare even a few hours occasionally, Cancer Focus NI would love to hear from you.

‘Being their Santa last year was great as I love meeting people’

Trevor Cast (54) is a retired fire fighter originally from Nottingham, now living in Bangor. He is married to Maura (56). He says:

In 2012 Maura had breast cancer and was treated in Nottingham and we then moved to Northern Ireland, where her parents are originally from, in 2013.

In between Maura being diagnosed with breast cancer and her operation, my mum died of pancreatic cancer and when we moved over here I wanted something to do in my retirement that would directly support the work done by cancer charities.

Maura was going to the art therapy group at Belfast City Hospital, which was run by Cancer Focus NI, and she told me they were always looking for volunteers.

One of the other reasons I volunteer is because when we first came over here Maura didn't know anyone and getting involved in art therapy led to her meeting lots of people and making lifelong friends. 

To me it's a way of paying them back for everything they've done for us and the great treatment that Maura got.

The most important part of that is raising funds for the research that they do.

One in three people are affected directly by cancer - it touches everyone and I like to feel I'm doing my bit.

The primary role I have is driving, taking patients to hospital appointments, and then helping out at fundraising events like dog walking and bag packing.

I also drop leaflets round to doctors' surgeries and other venues, giving information on awareness and the services they provide.

I was their Santa last year which was great fun, as I love meeting people - cracking jokes and making the kids laugh.

I think if you're on your own and you have cancer, are getting over it, or if you've lost someone, Christmas can be a poignant time.

It's a celebration, but it can be a very emotional time for many people.

Getting involved in activities, like bag packing, also helps raise awareness of the charity and the work it does, spreading the word about the services available.

I get a lot of satisfaction in helping out and it gives you a good feeling to know you're doing something worthwhile that will ultimately help others."

'I wanted to give something back as they helped so much'

Helen Gallagher's husband  Michael died in 2015 from cancer. A former bank employee, Helen has retrained and is now working in the pharmaceutical industry.  She lives in Banbridge and has a son David (20) and a daughter  Rachel (19). Helen and her  husband used the counselling services at Cancer Focus NI  and she also volunteers for the charity. She says:

I do a few different volunteering duties including bag packs and collection events in various locations such as Dobbies in Lisburn and Victoria Square in Belfast, particularly at Christmas time.

I also volunteer at the Colour Runs and Slieve Donard climbs, as well as taking part in them.

I really wanted to give something back because Cancer Focus helped us so much.

These days it's hard to find a family which hasn't been affected by cancer and the charity needs as much fundraising as possible to help as many people as they can, and hopefully the small amount of volunteering I do can help in some way.

We received quite a few of the services that Cancer Focus NI provide. Both my husband and I availed of the counselling services before we lost him and I also had counselling after Michael died. They were two very different types of counselling based on our individual experiences and needs.

The family services were superb for my daughter who struggled with the uncertainty of the cancer diagnosis. She found it very difficult to cope with because we didn't have the answers and family services were fantastic - in particular, Rachel Smith and the family nights which we went to for a long time after we lost Michael.

It isn't an easy thing to volunteer as it reminds me of the circumstances that have led to my involvement with Cancer Focus NI. However, I don't do it to get anything out of it.

I do it to try and help others. Although I find it hard at times, it can also be an enjoyable and extremely worthwhile experience. I feel like part of the 'volunteer family'. It's great to meet the others and they seem to be a particular type of person.

I've met some very special people through volunteering. If you have the time and you want to help, that's what volunteering is about.

I think Christmas can be a very difficult time for people who have been affected by cancer and for those who have lost someone, so it is a particularly poignant time to give something back and remember those who are still having to use the services provided by Cancer Focus NI."

'I know from my own diagnosis what people will go through'

Peter Branker (46) from Dromore works for Translink and also volunteers at a youth club. He says:

I volunteer for Cancer Focus NI because I know what it's like to have cancer -  I've been diagnosed three times at the ages of 13 and 18, and again a few years ago, which have resulted in me losing my right eye and my left leg below the knee.

I've done lots of fundraising for different charities over the years and when I heard about the work Cancer Focus NI was doing I went down and visited them and began volunteering about two years ago.

I've travelled to different towns doing collections and assisted at various events that they've been running, including the Christmas Grotto in Lisburn.

Most recently, in the summer I was a judge at their Strictly Come Dancing event in the Stormont Hotel in Belfast. It was a fantastic event and has spurred me on to take part in the next one as a contestant.

The grotto was great fun to be part of and it was really just helping out and bringing the children in to see Santa - complete with an elf outfit. I love doing that sort of thing and helping out, especially with charities that I believe in, and Cancer Focus NI do great work with people affected by cancer.

Helping raise funds and volunteering gives me great satisfaction, as I know from my own diagnosis what people go through.

How Cancer Focus NI helps families is just incredible and even as recently as 30 years ago a cancer diagnosis was all about treatment. Now there's so much support for people and the families affected, such as art therapy, counselling and support groups.

Christmas is the most important time to get involved, as many get excited for this time of year, but there are also others who are lonely and isolated and thinking about the people they have lost. It's a great thing to do."

The lady who loves volunteering for charities

Susan Coey (64) is a retired family support worker from Holywood. She has one daughter, Nicola (42), and two grandchildren, James (8) and Anna (12). She says:

I took part in a dragon boat race a few years ago at Cutters Wharf in Belfast for Cancer Focus NI, who then sent me regular newsletters which contained information about volunteering and it was something I was keen to do.

I've volunteered with a number of charities over the years and for Cancer Focus NI I've done street collections and bag packing. I'm now looking at getting involved with the charity's Zest for Life, a six-week programme designed for those people who are on a survival and recovery period in their cancer journey.

Street collections might not appeal to everyone, but I quite enjoy the interaction I get when I'm out on behalf of the charity.

I find the bag packing is an amazing experience and I've done several of them in the Marks & Spencer at Bloomfield in Bangor.

One of the first times I did it an elderly lady was telling me about how she'd lost her husband the previous year and we stood and talked for ages, and ended up hugging each other - all from putting a few groceries into her bag.

You meet very interesting people who, quite openly, talk to you about their experiences. They're also interested in the work Cancer Focus NI do and are incredibly generous as well. I find it very sociable and people are more aware of others who are struggling at this time of year.

Christmas time is very emotional and difficult for many, but especially for the people going through the trauma of cancer.

I feel I've a lot to give, and it's a worthwhile cause to give my time to."

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