What’s it like to volunteer with Crisis at Christmas?

Volunteering – spending our time helping those less fortunate – is probably something we’d all love to do more regularly, however, it’s often difficult to commit to it.

Volunteering with Crisis, the charity that helps homeless people in the UK, had been sitting on my bucket list for a while and what pulled me to its Crisis at Christmas appeal was that it only required me to commit to a minimum of two days of volunteering within the Christmas period – that’s it. Many people tend to book off the entire Christmas period from work anyway, so to spend a couple of days doing charitable deeds is a no-brainer.

The Crisis at Christmas appeal takes place every year for the two weeks of Christmas, where it feeds and in many cases, houses, homeless people as winter shelters are closed. It’s a gigantic operation split across various centres in London and the UK that relies on volunteers – doctors, opticians, seamstresses (to fix broken clothes) and more – to lend their time to give homeless people support. Just before the operation each year, the charity gets donations from supermarkets, butchers, bakeries and more – and then cooks up meals on the basis of what’s been offered.

How to sign up for Crisis at Christmas

It is quick and simple to sign up to volunteer – in late October last year, I registered my details on the Crisis at Christmas website (it’s different to the generic Crisis charity website, so do a quick Google search to find it) and chose which role I wanted to do – there was everything from being a kitchen assistant, a media assistant to a general volunteer. Each shift was approximately 8 hours long and you could choose between morning, evening or overnight shifts. Crisis has homeless shelters set up all over London (and a few outside it) so I found the one closest to me (Chalk Farm). My boyfriend and I applied at the same time and selected the same shifts, so we’d be able to do it together. You have to do a minimum of two shifts.

Despite having limited cooking experience, I chose the kitchen assistant role. [It’s not necessary to be an expert, just to know basic skills such as how to handle a knife and a peeler.] The Crisis online system then informed me that I had to book onto a food safety and hygiene course before I would get the stamp of approval to volunteer. Thankfully the certificate is valid for three years, so when I volunteer again in the next two years, I won’t have to worry about this little bit of admin.

The food safety course took place on a Sunday at the Crisis Cafe in Liverpool Street, a few weeks before Christmas. It cost £40, but this fee can either be donated to the charity or refunded back to you once you’ve completed your shifts. The course took a total of about six hours, followed by a multiple choice exam. It all sounds rather serious but it wasn’t too bad – the fail rate is very, very low. I picked up lots of useful nuggets of information I could use in my own kitchen: ie there’s no point washing chicken as the only way the germs are killed is through heating the meat to a high enough temperature.

In the weeks leading up to my shift, I was emailed handy information and a briefing form for what to expect on the day.

What happens on the day/s

As the shifts crept around in December, I was doing my best to remember everything I’d learned on the food safety course. We arrived and checked in at reception, picked up our name badges and dropped off our bags before heading straight to the kitchen. We put on our aprons and hair nets, and then met the chef, who told us what we’d be cooking and what needed to be done.

As it was an evening shift (3pm-11pm), we were going to be making a two-course dinner for 400 people. It was a mammoth task: I found myself peeling at least 150 potatoes (it’s not glamorous work!), cutting them into wedges and then putting them into gigantic industrial ovens. Next I was seasoning and boiling down at least 1kg of cabbage in a pan, then helping to make beef burgers. There’s a common misconception that Crisis is just a soup kitchen – I didn’t see any soup the whole time I was there – instead we were conjuring up elaborate meals.

Working in the kitchen, it was the first time in a very, very long time that I spent more than four hours without looking at my phone (phones aren’t allowed outside of pockets), but, incredibly, I didn’t even have a chance to miss it. The music was blaring in the kitchen, the vibe was busy but upbeat, and we were all pitching in to help with whatever needed doing next. In total there were about 9 of us cooking, so it was all hands on deck. Once all the food was prepped it was time to serve – but we didn’t serve the residents directly, instead we served the volunteers who then took the plates to the residents.

After serving we got to eat what was leftover, then came the clean up. Luckily, kitchen volunteers don’t do too much washing (other volunteers are sometimes brought in for this and there’s an industrial dishwasher), but there’s lots of grease to remove from hobs and jobs like that. Gloves are provided, so pop your hands in and get busy.

What I enjoyed most about working in the kitchen was the chance to get to know the other volunteers; the sense of teamwork was immense. One girl I met was bravely doing five days of kitchen shifts in a row. It got very hot in the kitchen so my advice would be to wear layers so you can take on/off items. As you’re on your feet all day, wear the comfiest shoes you own. Stay hydrated; it’s easy to get caught up in the business but take a few minutes to grab a drink and a snack from the stall outside the kitchen. I regretted having my nails painted the day before – by the end of the shift the paint was chipped and ruined! It was an exhausting eight hours, and by the end I was ready to collapse into bed, but it was very rewarding to hear that we’d fed so many people and feedback on the food was very positive.

The second shift I did (day shift, 7.45am-3.45pm), we were making two meals; breakfast and lunch. I knew what to expect this time around, and we were making a full English followed by a roast chicken dinner and macaroni cheese. Time flew even quicker on this shift, and it was nice to see a bit of daylight as we left that day.

It felt good to know we’d helped the residents in some small way, and given our time to a worthy cause. Of course, Crisis at Christmas is only a part of the charity’s work, and they are looking for year-round volunteers, but this is a good way to lend a hand at Christmas, to those that need it most. After Crisis at Christmas is over, the charity hosts a party to thank all the volunteers, so you have a chance to reunite with new friends, too.

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