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Celebrating Volunteers' Week: members' stories

June 2021

To celebrate Volunteers' Week, we shared the stories of some of our inspirational WAY volunteers and WAY members who were nominated for our Mandy Burrow Award. This is an award that's given to our members who have gone above and beyond to support fellow WAY members.

On Monday, 7 June, we announced that Tracey Ahmed was the winner of the 2021 award. Read on to find out more...

Tracey

We started with volunteer Tracey, who is an Area Contact for North Yorkshire. She was nominated and ultimately chosen as the winner of this year's Mandy Burrows Award for her wonderful initiative organising WAY's Secret Santa, which makes sure that families across the UK receive Christmas gifts. Here's Tracey's story...

When did you join WAY and why?  

I joined WAY in December 2013 following the death of my husband in the September. A good friend of mine gave me a book on how to cope with death and WAY was mentioned in the credits. I joined so I could have conversations with people who just "get it"; with people who empathise because they understand and not sympathise because they don't. 

How did WAY help you on a personal level? 

In the beginning, the Facebook page was a good sounding board – I was constantly posting. The anonymity helped – I could say anything and just tell my story. The biggest help was knowing I wasn't alone and whatever I was feeling was very normal, understandable even.  

WAY has helped me grow and to feel comfortable being me. I've made friends for life and know that even in the darkest times, someone is listening and in the good times, someone will celebrate all the good things with me too. 

When did you start volunteering for WAY? 

I started arranging the odd meet up a few months after I joined. It was great to meet people in person. I also helped out with activities during the annual Centre Parcs weekend (for example, arranging trick or treating around the village, for kids and adults alike). 

Tell us a bit more about your volunteering role and what it involves? 

My volunteering roles in WAY have varied over my seven year membership, including being the current Area Contact for North Yorkshire and Area Assist for WAY-AYE in the North East. However, I'm probably best known in WAY for organising the WAY Secret Santa over the past few years. This involves allocating Santas to send gifts to adults and children in the WAY family. The Secret Santa has grown over the years and last year over 300 people received gifts...

During the first lockdown, I ran a "Lockdown Squirrel", arranging gifts for WAY children from generous WAY members. This managed to bring some smiles to many children during a very trying time. 

My current project is "WAY RAOK", a group of over 250 members who are making people smile by sending little random acts of kindness (for example, a bar of chocolate or a book). I love how many people are feeling less alone simply because someone cared enough to think of them. The messages of thanks I have received from people in this group have left me overwhelmed and emotional, as has this nomination. 

What do you get out of being a WAY volunteer on a personal level? 

I know that. without WAY's volunteers when I first joined, I would have struggled with my grief. The support I got from meeting them, talking to them or simply reading their stories made me realise I could "weather the storm" and life would be good again... I have and it is! 

I volunteer because I want to help others, it makes me feel good to see a smile, if only fleetingly, on a person who's experienced the worst trauma. 

Do you have any advice for others who might be considering volunteering for WAY? 

Do it – whatever you love doing, there will be others who will join in! WAYs volunteers are the reason it works so well, simply by reply to a post and supporting a member you are volunteering! 

Rebecca

On the second day of Volunteers' Week, we talk to WAY volunteer Rebecca, who helps run the local group in Norfolk and also set up a subgroup for WAY members without children.

When did you join WAY and why?
I joined WAY a few weeks after my husband died. My family and friends were lovely, but really didn't understand how I was feeling. I felt very alone and needed the support of people who understood. I'd tried other bereavement groups, but they were either for much older widows or general bereavement – and I needed to talk to people who knew what it was like to be a widowed young.

How did WAY help you on a personal level?
WAY helped me in so many ways. First of all, it was such a relief to find other people who knew what I was going through, and told me that all the awful stuff was normal for someone whose partner had just died. I no longer felt that I was abnormal. Then WAY became a source of friendship and a new social life – like so many people, I needed this. Socialising with other widows, and knowing that laughing and crying together are all ok, has been wonderful. And I love to travel, and when my husband died, I thought I'd never go anywhere ever again. But I have had some amazing breaks and holidays (though that obviously has come to a bit of a halt in the last year!) with friends made through WAY.


I always say that I presume I would have survived being widowed, but without WAY, it would have been a very different experience.

When did you start volunteering for WAY?
When I joined WAY, I was told that someone would contact me to welcome me and answer any questions. That never happened, which was disappointing. There was no area contact for Norfolk at the time, so when WAY asked for volunteers, I offered as I didn't want anyone else to be in the same position I had been. It was initially very hard work trying to build up the local group, but definitely worth persevering – Norfolk WAY is the loveliest group of people. After organising regular events for several years, I stepped down last year as I felt that someone else would be able to bring something fresh to the role, and am now an area assist.

Tell us a bit more about your volunteering role and what it involves?
As well as helping out with the Norfolk group and organising local events, I also started the Wayers Without Children (Waywocs) group when I noticed that some childless members were struggling, either because they felt left out at local meetups or because they became distressed when there were lots of posts and photos in WAY groups about people's children.

These are particularly hard for people who are also deeply grieving their loss of opportunity to have children, to the extent that they felt they were unable to access support in WAY. I had no idea when I offered to start Waywocs quite how large it would grow and how active it would be. As well as being admin for the main Waywoc group, which is always busy, I now also admin several lively sub-groups, so this has grown to take up a fair amount of time – and thought - most days. It can be emotionally draining, but it also feels truly worthwhile.

What do you get out of being a WAY volunteer on a personal level?
I suspect most people say this, but I have had so much from WAY, I want to give something back. When I was newly bereaved, it helped me so much to hear from those who were further on that life gets better – that the awful pain would become manageable and things would improve. So I feel it's really important for someone like me, who has been bereaved for a little while, to be able to tell new widows, from my own experience, that life has the capacity to be good again. Being able to help others is a privilege.

Do you have any advice for others who might be considering volunteering for WAY?
Yes – give it a try! It's very rewarding.

Kirsty

Kirsty

On the third day of Volunteers' Week, we talk to Kirsty, who is Area Contact for Central Scotland, and has set up a number of initiatives to help support newer members through lockdown...

When did you join WAY and why? 

I joined WAY after my husband died suddenly in 2015. I became very aware of the need to surround myself with people who got it and with whom I could make new memories for my two boys and myself. I also needed these people to have nothing to do with my previous life. 

How did WAY help you on a personal level?

I knew that the members of WAY knew what I was going through and could give me the space I needed to speak about uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. I also needed the hope that I wouldn't always feel like 'this' and life would become enjoyable again.

When did you start volunteering for WAY?

I think it was about 18 months after joining. The Area Contact at the time asked if I would like to help out with messaging new members in my area. I immediately said yes as wanted to support people in the way I had been supported when I joined. 

Tell us a bit more about your volunteering role and what it involves?

I took over the role of Area Contact when Rhona decided it was time for her to change her role. As AC I contact new members when they join WAY to introduce them to the group and to help them find their feet within their new unwanted lives. I have arranged a fair few meet ups, ranging from coffee dates, kids’ play dates to ten pin bowling and even a pub meet up just before lockdown. I can't take all of the credit though as I am part of a small team of volunteers for Central Scotland who help to arrange events too. 

When Covid-19 hit and we first went into lockdown I set up a buddy system for WAY Scotland as I was conscious that members were potentially going to struggle with the enforced isolation and that we could help each other through the unknown territory into which we were being thrown. This saw groups of 2 or 3 people being matched and they started to communicate with each other. I also started host weekly Zoom sessions for Central Scotland, which quickly extended to the whole of Scotland then included Northern Ireland and Cumbria.

These sessions, called Saturday Night Blether, have taken place every Saturday since March 2020 and are still going strong! We have sometimes joined forces with the Notts group, who also held Saturday night Zoom sessions and this felt like we were going on a road trip at a time when restrictions meant travel was banned! We are about to collaborate with them on a more permanent basis to ensure that these sessions can continue going forward. These sessions have been vital in ensuring that we have had somewhere to 'go' once a week, at a time when there was very little to look forward to. Again, I can't take all of the credit as I couldn't have done this without a few other members helping to host the weekly sessions. 

My newest venture is the New Members Chat session on a Saturday morning, which takes place on Zoom. This first came about as part of the WAY Winter Festival as I was asked to host a session for new members. I jumped at the chance as I had been contemplating the idea of something for new members. These sessions are informal chats where members who are fairly early on in their grief can get together with people at a similar stage and chat through how they are feeling, issues they are encountering or concerns they may have about the future.

I first considered holding these sessions as, when I joined  WAY, the website was the main source of information and chat, the Facebook group really wasn't a 'thing' back then. I joined some sessions in the WAY chat room and these became a regular feature in my weekly calendar.  We would arrange to 'meet' at weekends in the chat room and a group of us became regulars.  We even met up in real life and some of us remain great friends now, six years on. The support I got from my group was what got through the torture that is grief.  I wanted that same support for new members and thought the Zoom sessions could possibly provide that. I am beyond thrilled to say that some of the members have met up in real life and some of them have their own Zoom sessions, group chats and message each other to offer support between sessions. I can honestly say that I get as much, if not more, from these sessions as the members. It is an honour to be part of their journey and healing process.  

What do you get out of being a WAY volunteer on a personal level?

That is difficult to put into words. When I first read up about WAY, I read someone's testimonial saying it was "life saving" for them. I thought that was a bit dramatic given it was 'only' an online peer support charity.  How wrong I was...on both accounts! WAY has literally saved my life on several occasions and I want to give that support to other members, to help them save their lives from the darkness of such unfair loss. I can do this by volunteering.  

Do you have any advice for others who might be considering volunteering for WAY?

Don't think about whether or not you can do it, you can. You have so much to give. As a volunteer you will be part of a team so it is not 'all on you', you have support. The feeling of being able to support people at a time they need you most really is a privileged place to be so go for it. Sign up! 

Scott

On the fourth day of Volunteers' Week, we meet Scott, who is Area Contact for Leicestershire. He has been nominated for his instrumental role in keeping the Widows’ Arms Pub quiz running during lockdown as well as for running online bingo sessions during the pandemic.

His nominee said: “There has been a regular following and new players are still joining in. I have witnessed new friendships develop thanks to the regular bingo sessions. This is truly WAY peer-to-peer support working at its best.”

How did WAY help you on a personal level?

I joined on the 29 June 2020. WAY has helped me in ways I didn’t think possible. I didn’t think I could host a quiz or even host a bingo night. I jumped in when someone wanted to stand down from the quiz. I took the step forward and took it on and have been doing it now as a host about 9 months now. Then after playing bingo, one of the bingo callers was on holiday and the other bingo caller could not make it. I was not going to let the bingo players lose a night of bingo so with a mad dash we got it sorted and now I host a bingo night and cover the other callers if they can’t make it.

When did you start volunteering for WAY?

I started volunteering for WAY some time ago by hosting the quiz and then bingo but took the leap to make my volunteering official about February 2021 when I joined up as a support for the Area Contact (AC) for Leicestershire but quickly took on the AC roll within a few days as I had more time than the AC.

Tell us a bit more about your volunteering role and what it involves?

I host a quiz every Friday night and host bingo every other Wednesday. There are now three of us bingo callers so the job is split across the three of us and we have a great team balance all helping to cover if it’s needed

What do you get out of being a WAY volunteer on a personal level?

I get more than I thought I would - the laughs at bingo and hosting the quiz you never know who is going to make a false call on bingo or what team will come first in the quiz. 

Do you have any advice for others who might be considering volunteering for WAY?

My advice is there is no such thing as “I can’t do that“ or “I am not good enough” - there is always something you can do even if it’s as small has co-hosting bingo or helping out on a quiz. There is always a way to help out.  

Heather

Heather is an Area Contact for the Bromley and Dartford region in Kent. She has gone above and beyond to support fellow WAY members as a volunteer. Here is her story...

"I joined WAY in 2011; after my husband (Chris) died of endocarditis at Christmas 2010 (he was born with a congenital heart defect and outlived his life expectancy by at least 20 years!). My parents found out about WAY from a leaflet they got from the hospital in London when Chris died. It took me a few months to be in a place to join and then a few more months to summon up the courage to attend my first event.

I attended my first event in the summer of 2011, a pub evening at the Yacht in Greenwich. I chose this event because I feel at home in pubs and am usually able to just walk into them (this is the one place I can do this)! I found the group quite easily and was amazed at how welcoming they all were. I felt like I belonged, and they got me and what I was going through. For the first time since my Chris died I felt understood and like I wasn't some kind of freak!!! I cried and laughed all evening.

My second WAY event was a day trip to the Kent & East Sussex Railway and Bodiam Castle. One of my new-found friends took me there as I don't drive. It was at this event that I met a lady called Emma who eventually became one of my best friends (we have since been on holiday together twice).

When my dad died that October they all rallied round me and supported me through the added pain, which made a terrible loss a little easier to cope with. One of the members even drove me to the hospital in London to see my dad the weekend before he died.

Unfortunately there was nobody running events in my local area so I had to go to London or Kent, but I and some of my new-found friends wanted things more locally, so I started arranging things – pub evenings or meals out in local restaurants. They were well attended and very enjoyable. Then someone suggested I became an official volunteer, so I did in May 2012.

I can't remember the first event I organised as there have been so many, but I know we have had countless pub evenings in various different Wetherspoons or other pubs all over the area (Beckenham, Bromley, Orpington, Sidcup...). We have been for lots of meals at all different restaurants, although the most popular seem to be Indian or Chinese. There have been theatre visits, crazy golf games, bowling, picnics, walks, museum trips, games nights at people's homes, a cruise up the Thames, trips to stately homes and gardens, and now we have all the Zoom events (I really hope we can keep these up when life returns to whatever passes as normal).

The pandemic really changed things but thankfully Zoom came to our rescue and brought even more people into our group. We have had a Friday quiz night every week since the start of the first lockdown (each week someone else is quiz master). There have been whodunit murder mystery events and a panto, birthday parties, and sometimes we just get together and chat.

I hope I manage to provide a welcoming presence for all members, including new ones, and make them feel like this is a good and safe place to be, where we will hold them up and wrap them in our WAY blanket. If people need a group, we are all there for them. If a one to one is better at any time, I try to provide that too. I have spent time with members on their saddest anniversaries, and will continue to do so if I can. We also celebrate the happy times - like birthdays, new jobs or a new pet.

One of the most important parts of my role, as I see it, is to involve members in this amazing support group in any way I can, and to encourage new friendship – if I manage to get people together and they hit it off, I feel my purpose has been realised as they can now support each other and maybe won't feel so alone with their grief.

I have made so many new friends through WAY, some of whom pass through on their way to the next part of their journey, but others who have come and stayed – I have met my chapter 2 with my new partner Ian and have made some truly wonderful friends (Faith, Emma, Stuart, Joanne, Bridget, Candi, Gina to name just a few) who always support me and I hope I give back to them in the same way.

WAY has been there in my darkest moments and held me together, so in my lightest times I want to give back and hope to be able to do for others what they have done for me.

So if anyone else is thinking about volunteering I say go for it. It is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my life."

Tadhg

Tadhg is Area Contact for Bedfordshire. He played a key role in starting the Widows’ Arms pub quiz during lockdown, which was a lifeline for so many people and a chance to socialise on a Friday night.

When did you join WAY and why?

Someone at work heard an interview on local radio and suggested WAY to me. I figured it might be good for kids to meet over children. Besides, I can't turn down an invite to a picnic. My first event was attending a May Big Picnic in 2019.

How did WAY help you on a personal level?

WAY became a place where I could ask questions, sharing ideas from what should go in children's lunchboxes to when did people stop wearing their wedding ring to dealing with friendships that didn't feel the same anymore. WAY gave me a sense I wasn't alone.

When did you start volunteering for WAY?

The previous Area Contact stepped down in February 2020. I stuck my hand up to help and have been an AC since then.

Tell us a bit more about your volunteering role and what it involves?

The plan was to continue the fine work the previous AC had done, going out to a pub/cafe and being able to talk in a casual atmosphere. These plans were quickly shelved as the pandemic took hold. I got to grips with running Zoom meetings locally, ran a Friday night pub quiz for a period of time, even tried playing computer games together over Zoom. I also help out on the LGBTQ+ and WAGAN (geek/fandom) Facebook groups with an amazing team of admins.

What do you get out of being a WAY volunteer on a personal level?

In the podcast Griefcast, they talk about a concept of grief elders. These are people who are looked to, who have been through this before. Immediately after grief there is a huge sense of feeling lost and feeling there's an element of duty to try and lend a hand or just provide hope that there is some sort of life you can lead afterwards.

Do you have any advice for others who might be considering volunteering for WAY?

You are not volunteering on your own. I was concerned that it would be just me holding the fort but there's a huge team of volunteers. Everyone helps each other and there's a real team spirit.

Ruth

On the final day of Volunteers' Week, we are sharing the story of Worcestershire WAY member Ruth, who has been wonderful at arranging events during lockdown and throughout the year – from gin nights to themed quiz nights. Her nominee told us she has helped to keep the spirit of members up during this challenging time...

When did you join WAY and why?

I joined WAY in early 2014. Harry, my wonderful husband, had died in November 2013. I felt so alone and unable to talk to people about my grief as I could see it made them uncomfortable. A friend found WAY online and sent me the link.

How did WAY help you on a personal level?

To start with, WAY didn’t really have an impact on my life. I was automatically put into the West Midlands group and just didn’t connect with anyone, I still felt alone.

After a few months of ignoring WAY, I joined the Worcestershire WAY group and it changed my life. Because of the friendships from that group, I moved to Worcester, a place I had not even considered.  I am still incredibly close to a number of people from that group. One of them told me about WAYWOCs – and I joined this sub-group for WAY members without children in December 2015. O had found my tribe!

The way we all care for each other in times of incredible grief is just awe inspiring. We never judge or criticise each other. I feel confident enough to post sometimes the most ridiculous posts on subjects I would never be able to talk about – even with my twin sister. The love and support that comes back is wonderful. 

Through WAYWOCS I have met friends who I would do anything for and will be in my life forever. In fact I want us all to buy a huge house and grow old together!

I can honestly say, if it wasn’t for WAY and WAYWOCS, I’m not sure where I would be today. I would not be happy and content, that is for sure.

Tell us a bit about how you support others in WAY?

My background is event management, so it only seemed natural to organise some of the events within the WAYWOC sub-group. Things really changed though in 2020, once lockdown hit. I realised that we were all isolated, alone and probably really bored, so I started off organising a few virtual quiz nights to bring people together. I realised there was a need for these virtual events so I started looking around for companies offering virtual events and have arranged gin tastings, cheese/cider tastings, face yoga!, cocktail masterclasses, etc. 

What do you get out of helping other WAY members on a personal level?

What has filled my heart with joy is seeing people relax and laugh, even though they may be so very early in their journey. I just want them to forget their sorrow just for a few hours and laugh without guilt.

It has also given us the opportunity to keep in touch with friends and make new friends. I just can’t wait to actually meet some of the wonderful people I have virtually met over the last 15 months or so.

Do you have any advice for others who might be considering volunteering for WAY or doing that little bit extra to help others?

It can be a bit stressful, but keep it small and you will love the feeling you will get when you see smiles from everyone.