A time like no other.” That’s how Volunteer Cornwall’s support and development manager describes the impact of covid- 19 on his Cornish charity. For many years, Andy Brealsford popped over to my old BBC studios...


Laurence Reed and Andy Brealsford at Volunteer Cornwall

7th July 2021

A time like no other.” That’s how Volunteer Cornwall’s support and development manager describes the impact of covid- 19 on his Cornish charity.

For many years, Andy Brealsford popped over to my old BBC studios at a moment’s notice to talk about the brilliant work of his army of volunteers helping out in the community.

This time, it was my turn to see what really happens behind the scenes at his Truro’s headquarters. This huge operation has been running for more than 40 years, and now employs around 35 full-time staff and manages some 4,000 unpaid local volunteers.

Here’s a fact you may not be aware of: from a county population of just over 570,000, around a quarter volunteer regularly for an average of 10 hours a week. Andy says that’s high by national standards: “If you were to all the rank all parts of the country according to how popular volunteering is, Cornwall would be at the top that’s fantastic!”

Financially, this free resource is worth a staggering £257 million every year. So, what actually does Volunteer Cornwall do?

"We’re a bit like the job centre of the volunteer world,” says Andy. “We match people who want to volunteer with organisations that need volunteers. We keep a detailed list of organisations throughout Cornwall where you can apply and take what you fancy.”

Before covid hit, the charity had some experience of running emergency situations like winter snow and flu. During the swine flu pandemic ten years ago, it learned how to get groups of volunteers together at short notice and task them to support the most vulnerable.

Nevertheless, "the scale of the operation with Covid was like nothing we had ever done here before, and took us completely by surprise,” says Andy.

“No one expected that the national lockdown, with people forced to stay at home, would see such a huge spike in those coming forward to volunteer. It boosted the charity’s numbers, but at the same time demand for services considerably escalated. Thankfully, we got our recruitment drive just right, enabling us to help thousands of Cornwall’s most vulnerable.”

So, when we talk about volunteering what exactly are we talking about? According to Andy, around 80 per cent is shopping and prescription collections for those unable to leave their homes mostly the elderly and vulnerable, and some single parents with sick children.

Worryingly, the charity discovered there were a lot of elderly people living alone without human contact all day, so it set up a telephone befriending service.

“A simple daily chat can make such a difference to someone’s life,” says Andy, adding that the first lockdown had a dramatic effect on many people lives."

“Being forced to stay at home for six months shattered many people’s confidence then they were told it was ok to leave your four walls and go back out into a world that had changed dramatically.”

“You have all these things you have to do, like hygiene with your hands, queuing and spacing, so people were naturally worried about going back out. We created ‘walking buddies’ to accompany them until they got their confidence back. This made a big difference, particularly to the older generation. Even now, there are people in Cornwall still too scared to leave their homes, with the Delta variant still sweeping across parts of the country.”

Other services that sprang into action included pet-sitting for those who had to go into hospital with Covid, and gardening for those who couldn’t keep on top of things.

Volunteering comes in many shapes and sizes. It is not just about helping the needy and vulnerable; hundreds give their valuable time to help out with local sports clubs and activities. One of those is ex-China clay lorry driver Lawson Kent, who at 77 has been helping out at his local cricket club in Truro since taking his nine-year-old son to watch a match in 1985.

He is one of a dedicated group of six or seven that put in around 12 hours a week. He and his son are responsible for looking after the pitch, and at the height of the summer will often spend the whole day there. He sees it less as volunteering, more as helping to keep the place looking as good as possible.

“It’s a vibrant club, and it’s good to do something for the community. If no one did it, there wouldn’t be anything there to play on.”

It’s fair to say volunteering runs through the family’s veins. Lawson’s wife, Jane, currently works in the Cornwall Hospice Care shop in the city, as well as packing parcels at a local food bank. If that weren’t enough, she’s put her name forward to help administer the covid-19 vaccinations.

At the moment in Cornwall alone, there are more than 400 volunteers helping out at these centres. At 65, Russell Keeble has run the Threemilestone and Gloweth volunteer group since 2009, helping dozens of people with hospital trips, food shopping, benefit and housing issues. He also runs a Christians Against Poverty food bank from the nearby Methodist Church.

Russell is so proud of his volunteers; this year, two received official recognition, one from the High Sheriff of Cornwall, the other via a prestigious British Empire Medal. Carol Dunstan, 78, has lived in the area for 50 years. She told me how in the old days, she knew everyone on her housing estate; now, it has grown to such an extent, she knows just a handful of neighbours.

Crippled with arthritis, she relies heavily on local volunteers picking up her food shopping and vital prescriptions. She can phone Russell in the morning, place a food order and the volunteer will pop it down and have a welcome chat with her. “It’s absolutely marvellous – a lifeline,” she told me.

Andy Brealsford says: “Volunteers are like a golden thread that runs through our society and quietly knits everything together unassumingly in the background. So much is done by volunteers that people do not realise if you took them away overnight, you would notice very quickly how much we rely on volunteers.”

He adds: “Volunteering is something everyone should do, as you get far more back from it than you give. I cannot understand people who say I have not got time. You can always find time in your life.

“Turn that box off in the corner of the room, and get out and do something. You will find a whole world of stuff going on. There is always a way for us to use your skills, experience and talents.”

For more information on volunteering, call Volunteer Cornwall on 01872 266988 or visit www.VolunteerCornwall org.uk Tell me what volunteering you get up to – or maybe you are one of thousands in Cornwall receiving help. Email me at laurence.reed@indyonline.co.uk. co.uk or follow me on Twitter @laurencereed

Saluting the helping hand of Cornwall