Lifelong friends and St Mungo’s volunteers offer cake and compassion as ‘Heroes of the Pandemic’

We recently celebrated our Heroes of the Pandemic Volunteer Awards, which recognised the hard work of our wonderful volunteers, including Ruth Gilchrist, 57, and Tracey Atkins, 56, over the past year. Friends for more than 30 years – they both gave invaluable support to staff and clients in one of St Mungo’s emergency hotels.

Over the last year, staff and clients in Bristol have grown used to the company of one very special partnership. Affectionately called ‘The Ladies Who Lunch,’ volunteers Ruth Gilchrist and Tracey Atkins have been recognised at the St Mungo’s Heroes of the Pandemic Volunteer Awards for their invaluable contributions during the Covid-19 crisis.

Between them, Ruth, who works in university admissions, and Tracey, a HR worker, have completed more than 150 shifts at the YHA Bristol, a St Mungo’s-run hostel offering emergency accommodation to people sleeping rough.

“There is a stigma around homelessness in society, but people fall on hard times and anybody can end up in this situation,” said Ruth. “When the pandemic hit, the streets were so empty, and I was worried that our clients would be forgotten. It’s lovely that me and Tracey are known as the ‘Ladies Who Lunch,’ but we haven’t done this for the accolades, we just wanted to be useful.”

In March 2020, St Mungo’s, alongside many other partners, agencies and homeless agencies, helped to bring thousands of people off the streets and into safe, emergency accommodation as part of the Government’s ‘Everyone In’ initiative. Ruth – who had volunteered at a night shelter run by St Mungo’s for several years, was asked to support the emergency response. Encouraged by Ruth, Tracey had also been volunteering at St Mungo’s for several months. Together, they helped to create a safe space for clients who had previously been sleeping rough, or at risk of doing so.

“It was all hands on deck,” explains Ruth. “Some clients were vulnerable, and others were apprehensive as we didn’t know how prevalent Covid-19 inflections could be. We helped keep the environment calm and clean, delivering food and making clients feel welcome.”

Tracey adds: “I was new to volunteering with St Mungo’s and I didn’t know what to expect. To begin with, I was a bit nervous around clients if staff weren’t there with me. But the more clients see you and get to know you, the more they trust you.”

As the pandemic continued, Ruth and Tracey – who each volunteered twice a week throughout the pandemic for approximately 1,500 hours – came up with a unique plan to boost morale. They earned their nickname ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ by bringing homemade cakes each week for staff and residents. “We’d organise blind taste tests with the clients and ask them to rate our cakes,” said Tracey. “Ruth usually won!”

Staff at the hotel were continually impressed by Ruth and Tracey’s commitment to boosting morale and making clients feel appreciated during throughout what has been a very difficult year for many.

When the hotel closed last month, the residents were supported to move on into other suitable, or permanent accommodation. Meanwhile, Ruth and Tracey are waiting for a new volunteering assignment with St Mungo’s.

Throughout the pandemic, over 467 St Mungo’s volunteers completed a total of 3279 shifts at our emergency hotels in Brighton, Bristol, Oxford and London as part of the ‘Everyone In’ scheme. This equates to over 27,000 hours, or three years of time spent volunteering.

“We wanted people to feel they were part of a community,” adds Ruth. “This last year has shown what can be achieved with getting people off the streets and into accommodation. Now it’s about keeping that momentum going and providing proper long-term support.

“If you see someone on the street, you might not have time to stop and talk, but you can smile. If you feel comfortable, I’d ask if they’re in contact with support services or make a referral to Streetlink so outreach services can find the person.”

This week, 1 – 7 June, is Volunteers’ Week. St Mungo’s would like to thank Ruth and Tracey, and all of our volunteers, for their support, enthusiasm and commitment during the Covid-19 crisis.

Find out more about volunteering with St Mungo’s here.