Could you join the army of hospice volunteers?

Yours truly in the kitchen at the Dougie Mac Hospice.

Yours truly in the kitchen at the Dougie Mac Hospice.

If you are of an age, like me, and you’re born and bred in North Staffordshire, the chances are you will know someone who has received care at the Douglas Macmillan Hospice in Blurton during the last 40 years.

That’s how long Dougie Mac, as we call it, has been caring for local people.

Hopefully, no longer to does anyone view the place as ‘somewhere people with cancer go to die’ – as a member of my family once referred to it.

Dougie Mac is, and always was, far more than a hospice which provides end-of-life care.

If you ever have cause to visit you’ll find a bright, airy place which has more of a community feel than somewhere caring for sick patients.

I suppose that’s part of the magic. The first-class facilities, the modern decor, the beautifully-maintained gardens and the wonderful meals.

It’s actually a lovely place to be.

But what makes Dougie Mac truly special is the people who work there and the hundreds of people who give up their time as volunteers.

It costs more than £10 million each year to keep the hospice running – or £22,000 a day, if you prefer – much of this raised through donations, shop purchases and legacies from the people of North Staffordshire.

The fact is that sum would be a hell of a lot higher were it not for the army of volunteers who supplement the hospice’s paid-for staff.

Either that or the hospice’s income would be lower and it would simply be unable to offer the huge range of services it currently provides.

Some volunteers are students, many are retired people, others simply have a few hours a week to spare and want to give something back to their community.

Roles are many and varied – depending on whether someone wants to be based at the hospice, working with patients or out in the community helping with events or fund-raising.

Wherever you go in the hospice you’ll find volunteers.They answer the phones, they look after the gardens, they help maintain the buildings and they interact with the most important people – the patients and their relatives.

When the Prime Minister talks about the ‘Big Society’, people scoff. The truth is it’s been in action at Dougie Mac for decades.

Earlier this week I, along with BBC Radio Stoke’s John Acres, Stuart George and Charlotte Foster, and the Hanley Economic Building Society’s chief executive David Webster, spent some time at the hospice as volunteers.

I found myself wearing a green throwaway apron (much to the amusement of colleagues back at The Sentinel newsroom) and working in the busy kitchen which, I discovered, operates a rolling 10-week menu which makes your mouth water.

Once I’d proved I could polish 40-off glasses for a do the following day, chef Stephen Pickerin (CORR), from Hanley, let me loose preparing two huge trays of braised steak for patients and staff.

Mum would have been proud of me.

I have to say it was quite a therapeutic experience and a lovely atmosphere within which to work – helped no end by the banter with Steve, a long-suffering Vale fan like myself.

I chatted to another volunteer, Keith, (a Stoke fan) who told me how he’d begun working at the hospice after retiring when he found himself wondering ‘what he was supposed to do now’.

Keith began as a volunteer in the hospice garden before neck and back pain had forced him inside where he now works as a kitchen assistant.

It’s quite clear that the volunteers are extremely well thought of by staff and are viewed as a vital part of the team.

As chef Steve said: “We really couldn’t cope without them.”

But it was something he said later that stuck with me as I drove away from the hospice.

Steve commented: “We get lovely compliments from the patients and relatives about the meals. The best thing is when you hear someone who is ill say: ‘I couldn’t face my food until I came here’. That’s really special.”

It’s volunteers like Keith, of course, who help Steve and the team in the kitchen achieve such incredible results and genuinely improve the quality of life for patients and their relatives.
Right now, Dougie Mac is desperate for more volunteers for all kinds of jobs 24/7.

If you think you could help out for a few hours a week, or more, in a patient-facing role, a fund-raising or income generation position or a hospice-based role, then call the Douglas Macmillan Hospice voluntary services team on 344332 or email workforce services@dmhospice.org.uk

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Just look at what COULD happen in our neck of the woods in 2013

Port Vale striker Tom Pope is set for a big year in 2013.

Port Vale striker Tom Pope is set for a big year in 2013.

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day and a New Year to boot.
As we shrug off the hangovers and stare balefully into the slate grey skies I, for one, am determined to be positive.
You know, I think 2013 might be alright if my crystal ball is anything to go by.
Here’s what COULD happen in the next 12 months…

*Stoke City qualify for the Europa League two months before the end of the season on account of not having lost a game at the Brit since 2003.
Sir Alex Ferguson gives Tony Pulis ‘the hairdryer’ for not having the decency to sell England defender Ryan Shawcross back to him – muttering something like: “He forgets all the favours I’ve done him” and mentions Stoke being “just a wee club in the Midlands”.
Potters striker Michael Owen then wins the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award. Like his three predecessors – Tony McCoy, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins – Owen takes the crown after spending his entire sporting year sitting down. (Joke © The Sentinel’s Sportsdesk)
*Sir Alex Ferguson is left tearing what’s left of his hair out as Tom Pope turns down a multi-million pound move to Old Trafford as a like-for-like replacement for Wayne Rooney.
Explaining his decision to The Sentinel, the Pontiff – whose 40 goals fire Port Vale to automatic promotion – said: “What’s Salford Quays got that I conna get in Sneyd Green, youth?”
Port Vale Supporters’ Club begins fund-raising for a statue of Pope, scheduled to be completed to coincide with the 27-year-old’s 40th birthday celebrations.
Meanwhile, in honour of the Burslem club’s success, the city council lifts the ban on Vale players urinating in the bushes at Hanley Forest Park.
*In a bid to save money Stoke-on-Trent City Council ditches plans to relocate its Civic HQ from Stoke to Hanley in favour of a move to neighbouring Newcastle.
Explaining the decision, council leader Mohammed Pervez said most people considered Newcastle to be in the Potteries anyway, even it was “a bit posher”.
However, councillors in the Loyal and Ancient Borough start a petition against the proposals – barricading themselves into the Guildhall until those riff-raff have gone away.
*In an attempt to improve Stoke-on-Trent’s image in the wake of the disastrous BBC documentary The Year The Town Hall Shrank, council leader Mohammed Pervez agrees to star in I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.
After successfully completing several Bushtucker trials councillor Pervez is narrowly beaten into third place by the pretend opera singer off the Go Compare telly adverts and a kangaroo named Dave.
Mr Pervez, however, remains upbeat – claiming he has “put the city on the map” and reveals he has persuaded Ant and Dec to appear in The Regent Theatre’s pantomime.
*Buoyed by his appearance on ITV1, city council leader Mr Pervez unveils the authority’s latest cost-cutting initiatives.
These include only four out of five council workmen being allowed to loaf about for two hours at lunchtime.
*Staff at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery are put in celebratory mood once more following the discovery of a further 700 pieces of the Staffordshire Hoard in a field near Lichfield.
After farmer Fred Johnson ploughs the earth deeper than a Rory Delap throw-in, he churns up Excalibur, the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail as well as the missing tail fin from the city’s Spitfire RW388.
The museum’s Principal Collections Officer Deb Klemperer tells The Sentinel that experts hope to have worked out what the new finds actually are before she retires in 2050.
*Staffordshire’s new Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Ellis unveils his radical new idea to solve the force’s acute staffing shortage.
After appointing his sixth deputy, Mr Ellis tells the media he will be handing out police uniforms to anyone who wants one, adding: “This is the Big Society in action. The genius of the idea is that the crims won’t know who’s a real copper and who isn’t.”
The Sentinel’s crime reporter thinks he’s joking until he hands her a canister of CS spray some flashing blue lights for her motor.
*Local radio stations run another story claiming The Sentinel is closing down.
The Sentinel’s Editor-in-Chief responds by publishing a 148-page supplement to mark the paper’s 148th anniversary – including all the stories the paper has beaten the radio stations to during the previous week.
*Developers of the new multi-million City Sentral retail complex on the site of the former Hanley Bus Station announce they have attracted another big name store to the development.
Poundland confirms it will be employing up to six part-time staff at its new superstore.
A spokesman for the shopping complex reveals the name is also to be changed after a huge public outcry because City Sentral is “clearly a bit daft”.
Expect the new Jonny Wilkes Centre to be open in
time for Christmas.
What are your hopes for 2013?

Community spirit is alive and well in Burslem this Christmas

lights

If we’re being honest nobody really understood what the Prime Minister was talking about when he first used the phrase ‘Big Society’.
Call-me-Dave’s press office dressed it up as the idea of taking away power from politicians and institutions and giving it to local people.
But many cynics felt it was little more than a smokescreen to hide the Coalition Government’s butchery of the public sector.
Cynics like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, who described the Big Society as ‘aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable.’
Well here in the Potteries we have what I believe is a prime example of the Big Society in action – whichever definition you believe.
You see, the Scrooges at Stoke-on-Trent City Council have decided Christmas is only happening in Hanley this year.
To be fair, amid care home closures and job losses one can understand why fir trees and baubles aren’t perhaps high on the local authority’s list of priorities.
Except in the city centre, of course.
The other forgotten five towns are receiving no council funding for their Christmas lights this year – saving taxpayers £84,000 as the authority attempts to cut millions more to balance its books over the next financial year.
However, in Fenton, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall traders have done their best to spread a little festive cheer by making the Christmas lights a DIY affair.
Which just left little old Burslem in the shadows.
But not for long.
I’ve no idea what their political persuasions are but I’m pretty sure David Cameron would be proud of the way locals Louise Worthington and John Flint have taken it upon themselves to brighten up the Mother Town of the Potteries over the festive period.
As, I’m sure, would the Archbishop.
If the Big Society means getting off your backside and doing something positive for your community rather than moaning about your lot then Louise, John and their pals should be its poster boys and girls.
They organised a meeting, set up a Facebook page with the help of their friend June Cartwright, and began collecting donations from individuals and businesses.
They’ve held raffles and will tonight stage a bucket collection at Vale Park ahead of the cup game against Bradford as they hope to close in on their target of collecting £3,500 to pay for three trees and seven sets of lights.
It may not seem like a lot of money in the grand scheme of things but it is £3,500 that needed to be raised quickly and this could only have happened if people could be bothered enough to make an effort.
One can understand why Louise and John were reluctant to let Christmas pass by in a place like Burslem which has a thriving night time economy.
I have nothing but admiration for the people who are taking it upon themselves to fill the vacuum left by council cutbacks.
The campaign to save Tunstall Pool was ultimately doomed to failure precisely because success would have meant the victors making an undertaking to run a large leisure facility full-time – with all the ongoing funding, time commitment and expertise that would require.
But once-yearly events or causes like putting up Christmas lights in a town are eminently achievable because the sums of money involved are relatively modest and people have 12 months to raise the necessary funds.
I sincerely hope that by tomorrow’s deadline Louise and John have raised the money they need to brighten up Burslem.
If they do they may well find themselves in a similar boat next year because it is highly unlikely the city council will play fairy godmother and find the money for Christmas lights in every town.
At least they can start fund-raising in January.
The problem that Burslem has is that it is a town where, with the odd notable exception, the only businesses faring well are the pubs.
Thirty years ago, when yours truly was growing up, it used to have a market, shoe shops and a Woolies.
Mum used to take me and my brother there on Saturdays to do some shopping – rather than making the trip to Hanley.
Nowadays you would struggle to buy much more than a pint, a kebab or some craft item in the Mother Town.
Yes, it’s a brilliant place for a night out but the truth is it has never recovered from the loss of big employers like Royal Doulton.
Stroll through on a week day and it is a veritable ghost town, dotted with empty shops and cursed with the great white elephant that is the old Ceramica building/Town Hall.
Burslem has the finest architecture in the Potteries, some nice craft and gift shops, some cracking pubs and a few too many takeaways and restaurants.
And that’s about it.
What it desperately needs is a plan.
Perhaps a rejuvenated Port Vale – or rather the business plans the club’s new owners have for Vale Park – will help to breathe new life into the town.
What is clear is that Burslem, its businesses, and the people who care about it, can no longer rely on the local authority for either the finances or the strategy to drag it out of the doldrums.
Instead, people like Louise Worthington and John Flint are going to become more and more important until new employers come along to restart the town’s economy.

Tick Christian if you really want to

Hands up all those who had heard of the British Humanist Association more than a month ago.
I rest my case.
Most of us hadn’t a clue this organisation even existed until its much-publicised campaign surrounding the Census documents which have just hit our doormats.
The BHA is campaigning vigorously to prevent people ticking the ‘Christian’ box when they fill in the forms if they don’t attend church or identify themselves as Christian in what they term a ‘meaningful way’.
Campaigners – including letter writers to The Sentinel – believe that ticking ‘Christian’, rather than ‘No religion’, influences central and local government policy.
They argue that it has led to an increase in faith schools and a disproportionate amount of funding being given to faith groups.
Having used this column before to criticise our churches for being dull and often less than relevant, as a lapsed Methodist Potter I feel duty bound to leap to their defence on this occasion.
This is yet another attack on religion here in the UK – specifically that most embattled and timid of groups: Christians. The archetypal soft target.
You see, I simply don’t see it as a bad thing that 70-odd per cent of people who filled in the 2001 census forms considered themselves to be Christian.
Yes, there’s no doubt that many of us will have done so out of some misguided sense of loyalty – or a yearning to belong to an identifiable group: a need to have a label rather than calling ourselves ‘non-religious’.
But so what?
We all know that the number of people actually attending churches in this country is small percentage of the overall population.
It is also a fact that the multi-cultural nature of our society means that Christian is no longer the dominant religion it once was in the UK.
The reason that most of us don’t attend church is because life gets in the way.
We are having our weekly lie-in, taking the children swimming, playing football, walking the dog, having a little quality family time or, heaven-forbid, working like yours truly does every Sunday.
But that doesn’t mean that many of us don’t still consider ourselves to be Christian.
Many of the things the BHA argues against I actually see as positives in our fractured society.
In my experience faith schools are generally excellent – which is why so many parents are desperate to have their children attend one.
Relatively small numbers of people may sit in pews and sing hymns on a regular basis but to assume that the church impacts only on those who do is naive in the extreme.
The Christian church, or perhaps more accurately those who make up its congregations, are very often at the heart of our communities – staging events which bring people together and providing love, care and support to some of the most vulnerable people.
David Cameron talks of the Big Society. I would say our churches adopted this idea a long time ago and have been practising what the PM is now preaching for many years.
I don’t take kindly to being told what boxes to tick by the anti-spiritual brigade.
Furthermore, I certainly don’t view the casual adoption of the Christian tag or the defaulting to a particular religion for the purposes of a statistical exercise as somehow dangerous or undemocratic.
It doesn’t matter to me whether someone is Christian, Muslim or athiest so long as he or she is a decent person.
If that feeling of belonging to a particular group helps someone in their life then I refuse to view it as detrimental.
Surely one’s faith is a personal thing. I attend church sporadically but I pray daily and my faith is very important to me. Crucially, I suspect I’m not alone in this approach.
So by all means tick Christian if you want to.
After all, only you and him upstairs really knows whether or not you are telling the truth.

Time to stand up and make a difference to our society

When Prime Minister David Cameron began talking up his vision of a Big Society, no-one really knew what he meant.
Six months later, and even after his keynote speech at the Tory conference, there were still many people who were left scratching their heads as to what the PM was actually going on about.
If you believe the sceptics, the Big Society is little more than a smokescreen for the massive cutbacks which are looming.
They will tell you it is the coalition government’s attempt to get volunteers and labour on the cheap for all manner of things usually delivered by professionals within the public sector.
However I, for one, am prepared to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt on this occasion.
This is because, whether or not “just call me Dave” truly believes in citizen power and the taking of individual responsibility, the idea of a Big Society seems to me to be very laudable in this day and age.
Irrespective of whether or not we agree with the Government’s approach to tackling the national debt, the PM’s mantra – which, in fairness, he was chanting long before the election – is a good one.
It’s good in the same way that, even if you don’t believe in God and don’t go to communal worship every week, you can still appreciate that the church does a great job in our communities.
One reason that I like the idea of a Big Society and think that perhaps it isn’t all just posturing and platitudes, is that even members of Mr Cameron’s own party are sceptical about it.
This is because they know it is a vague, nebulous concept to sell to the electorate
There are certainly no quick political wins with this soundbite.
So what is the Big Society?
In his speech to conference, the PM told us: “Your country needs you.”
He’s not wrong – on so many levels.
We’re up the creek without a paddle and we can quibble about whose fault it is all we want and crucify as many bankers as we like.
However, ultimately, we are all going to have to play a part in sorting out the current financial mess.
One thing is certain, it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
That means everything from our councils to schools and local charities – all aspects of our communities – are going to suffer.
What better time then to nurture a sense of individual responsibility and to get people off their backsides and doing their bit for their neighbourhoods?
Every week in The Sentinel, I read of people bleating about their lot.
Usually, this involves criticism of public services such as councils, the health service or the police.
In their eyes, it is always someone else’s fault and someone else’s responsibility to sort out whatever the latest problem is.
This is because the Nanny State has created a class of people who expect to be waited on hand and foot and think public services are there to tend to their every whim.
Many are not prepared to lift a finger to actually help themselves – or anyone else, for that matter.
I single such people out because this attitude is symptomatic of selfish Britain 2010.
You see, you don’t have to believe in David Cameron’s Big Society vision to actually embrace the concept.
There are school governing bodies, parent teacher associations, residents’ groups, youth organisations and local charities, to name but a few, crying out for volunteers during the toughest of economic circumstances because so many people can’t be bothered to help.
Anyone who needs inspiration to get involved just has to think about the winners of this year’s Sentinel and Britannia’s Our Heroes community awards.
They include 72-year-old Barry Bailey, from Shelton, who has raised a quarter of a million pounds for the Douglas Macmillan Hospice.
Then there is 13-year-old Toby Tomlins, from Norton, who – without a word of complaint – cares for his terminally-ill older brother Barny.
What about the inspirational committee of Chell Heath Residents’ Association who scooped our award for community group of the year by transforming the lives of families in their neck of the woods?
If the PM had been present at the awards he would have seen that plenty of people in the Potteries are already practising what he is preaching.
People like my old school friend Julie Hancock, who recently took it upon herself to organise a naked calendar shoot involving women from North Staffordshire to raise thousands of pounds for the Help The Heroes Charity.
At its heart, the Big Society is whatever you want it to be.
We can all sit around and moan.
The question is, what are you going to do to help your community through these tough times and make our society a better place in which to live?
*Martin organised a sponsored, all-night ghost-hunt at The Leopard pub, Burslem, in aid of Cheethams children’s ward at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire.

I’ve had enough of spongers… it’s time we found Bob a job

There’s a bloke who lives near me. We’re going to call him Bob.

As I put the recycling bin out before driving to work the other day he spotted me and wandered over, morning paper under his arm.

“I saw you last night,” he said. “Burning the midnight oil again were you?”

I took a deep breath and smiled.

Bob was referring to the fact that I could be seen from the street in our box room working on my computer after 10pm.

Having rather a lot of time on his hands, Bob tends not to miss anything that goes on in our road.
It had been something of a long day, I told him.

I had been up at 5.30am, driven to work, done my shift, driven home, made tea, bathed the little ’uns, read bedtime stories to them, made lunchboxes for the next day, had a bath, then done a couple of hours work on the computer in my PJs.

Bob chuckled and told me to be careful not to burn myself out. Then he strolled off to read his paper.

Now, it should be said that I’ve got nothing against Bob personally.

However, as I got into my car that morning I realised I have a problem generally with the Bobs of this world – of whom there seem to be far too many.

Bob, like me, lives in a modest semi-detached house. His family, like mine, has two cars.
But it is there that the similarity ends.

Bob’s little sports car sits on the drive and rarely moves. He parks his clapped out run-around across his driveway – presumably in some deluded belief that it will prevent thieves from making off with his second-hand Toyota.

I work full-time and my wife works four days a week. We use both cars daily and rely very heavily on our parents to help us with childcare arrangements around school dropping off and picking up times.

It is fair to say that, without them, we’d be stuck.

In contrast, neither Bob nor his wife work. They have a little boy, aged three, and Bob’s wife is expecting their second child this autumn.

Despite the fact that neither Bob nor his wife go out to work they send their daughter to nursery every day.

This means that Bob, who is in his late forties, can divide his time between the local golf course (of which he is a member) and DIY on his house.

Now, as far as I know, Bob’s family haven’t won the Lottery, or come in to a huge amount of money recently courtesy of the death of a great aunt.

I know Bob, who is in his late forties, previously worked for a council, but was signed off with stress some years ago and hasn’t been back since. (His words, not mine).

So, here’s the thing. I get rather annoyed when I read letters in The Sentinel from people asking that we don’t tar all benefits claimants with the same brush.

Yes, I know there are genuine cases of people who – for a variety of reasons – cannot go to work despite the fact that they would dearly love to.

However, for every one of them I suspect there must be another four lazy, malingering Bobs and Bobettes who are quite happy to take State handouts and do bugger all seven days a week.

If you doubt me, then take a look at the most recent ‘worklessness’ statistics for Stoke-on-Trent supplied by the Department for Work and Pensions.

In September 2009, 24 per cent of the city’s working population was economically inactive. That’s 35,500 people.

Of these, 8,180 were claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and a further 17,920 were claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) or incapacity benefits.

Thirty years ago not working was enough to bring shame on an individual or a family.

Now we have generations of children growing up not knowing what it is like to have a working role model and thinking that sponging off the State is the norm.

This is a situation that definitely worsened in the last 20 years and one which I sincerely hope the new Government will tackle in its attempt to engineer David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.

In my opinion, the vast, vast majority of people who aren’t working could work – if they really wanted to. Surely, we can all do something.

So, in this time of radical decisions and cost-cutting why don’t we, as a society, do ourselves a huge favour that just might get the Bobs of this world off their backsides?

We should tell them that if they want benefits (of any kind) they have to earn them by doing their local community a service every week because, frankly, I’m sick and tired of working to keep them at home.

So Bob is too stressed to go to work in an office. Fine.

Let’s have him picking up litter, scrubbing graffiti off walls or cleaning up some of the eyesore sites that blight our estates.

Anything to get him off the bloody golf course and back into the real world with me.