Turning our boozers into Assets of Community Value
“You can do a quick run, walk or cycle on your lunch break once a year, or you could do it every Monday lunchtime. I don’t think there’s another organisation that can facilitate that across loads of community groups,” Pete Hutchings, the Area Activator for Camden explains to me.
I joined Pete and other volunteers one Wednesday evening to help tidy up the garden of feminist theatre company Clean Break. Tucked away behind Kentish Town Road, the serene space sheltered behind high walls was unexpected.
“I personally hate gardening but I love people,” Elizabeth laughed while we were figuring out which tools would be best for scraping moss off the patio. Since joining in 2018, Elizabeth has completed over 500 tasks, or ‘Good Deeds’, from rehabilitating people coming home from hospital to picking up prescriptions on her lunch break.
A core focus of GoodGym is addressing the loneliness crisis, especially isolation amongst older people. “When you do work for older people they have a lot of knowledge and skills, they just don’t have the physical ability. We’re almost the inverse because we grew up not really doing anything with our hands, so we have a lot to learn from that point of view, but we are very physically able. It’s a mutual exchange.”
As a volunteer, you not only help out in practical ways but also provide someone with a lifeline back to their community that they would likely not otherwise have. “Sometimes people are so appreciative, they’re like we didn’t even think anyone would care to do this for us. It’s amazing that you not only care but you actually came,” Elizabeth reveals.
As much as GoodGym provides indispensable support and comfort to the community, there is also a lot to yield for the volunteers themselves. “I’m so glad I’ve got this little bit of downtime,” Pete reflects. “I know I’m working right now, but actually, I’m just focusing on planting or whatever the task is with everybody else. Everyone’s having a nice time, and not looking at emails, posting on social media, doing this, doing that, but planting some herbs.”
The Camden branch of GoodGym was one of the earlier ones to form, celebrating its ninth anniversary last month. Speaking to Pete and the other GoodGym volunteers, it’s clear there’s something about the Camden branch which sets it apart from others. “I think it’s very unique, even of the London boroughs, it’s more reliant on a transient population,” Pete observes.
Elizabeth is a true example of this, while she doesn’t live in London, Camden was her most convenient branch when she first joined and since she’s established a connection with the area she continues to help out here. “I feel like you get a better connection to the place, you get this network of memories,” she reflects.
Due to this transience and with many people continuing to work from home, or moving out of London altogether, numbers of volunteers for Camden’s GoodGym have unfortunately not returned to pre-pandemic times.
Previously there were just as many indoor tasks as outdoor ones, providing primary schools with a fresh coat of paint or sorting donations at Mind or Traid on Camden High Street. Understandably this shifted to more pointedly focused work, volunteering at food banks and supporting gardening projects. Discussing how people’s viewpoints adjusted throughout the pandemic, Pete shared that tasks became “more something to do that felt important than a way of meeting people or exercising”.
One legacy of the pandemic that remains is the presence of working outdoors, often in gardens like at Clean Break. What emerged from the conversations I shared that Wednesday evening spent sweeping and scraping was a clear agreement that there’s something about the act of planting that embeds a greater sense of purpose.
“I like going back with GoodGym or passing things that I’ve now got a connection to. There’s this orchard we did in a housing area in Somers Town. I wouldn’t normally be near that area or pass through there, but to go past, which I do now, and see the impact that I’ve had, and those people don’t know that I’ve done it, is such a rewarding thing”. Here Pete touches on something that feels particularly rooted in GoodGym’s mission, the notion of doing something for the benefit of others without any desire for personal recognition. The satisfaction of positively impacting others is enough.
Walking around Camden, so much goodness has been planted by people we will never know and not be able to thank, just like Elizabeth who mused on what she gains from volunteering with GoodGym. “You gain an additional familiarity with the place and you feel closer to it. You may turn a corner and think oh I remember that place, that’s where we did this. You look at Russell Square and remember, oh we planted those bulbs last January and now they’re shooting up and they look really beautiful. As you walk through Camden, you see a place and you feel a memory.”
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