James Bond. Superman. Indiana Jones. When we think of heroes they invariably evoke machismo, dashing good looks and an eye for a dry quip. IRL however, I'd come to the conclusion that heroes did not exist, at least for me. I felt perhaps I was too world-weary and cynical to look up to someone, be inspired by one individual. I just see flaws too easily, I thought. I was wrong.
My mind has changed in the last two months, when I've started volunteering at Glass Door, a homeless charity on King's Road. I've always felt an affinity with the homeless: with my rocky mental health, I feel I could have ended up in the same situation had circumstances been different. Glass Door employs a number of caseworkers, who provide emotional support and advice to guests of the shelter and help them find accommodation and work, in addition to a skeleton staff of office-y type roles who I help. This diverse bunch of caseworkers have become my heroes.
Neil Parkinson, the senior caseworker, exudes a boundless calm and almost angelic warmth. With his long, ginger dreadlocks and ponderous gait, one might be forgiven for thinking him a bit of a drifter. Far from it. Neil is extremely focused, dealing with a multitude of his clients' problems with a determined, methodical approach, handling obfuscating civil servants with skill and perseverance. His evident compassion is infectious.
I shadowed Lewis Gates, one of the newer caseworkers, for a day to get a taste of his job. His relentless energy and optimism blew me away. As we dealt with client after client at the drop-in centre downstairs, each with a range of issues ranging from mental health, benefits and housing to divorce and parole, Lewis never flagged or wavered. He provided three or four solutions to each situation, explaining the way forward to the frequently dejected and unmotivated guests with tireless patience.
Karolina is dark and mysterious, with beguiling brown eyes and a cautious, watchful presence. She speaks at least four Eastern European languages, invaluable in the shelter which supports a growing number of Polish, Romanian, Lithuanian and Latvian guests. She switches between languages with effortless precision, and has a habit of putting clients at ease with her personal and familial manner. Sarah is a high-energy Irish extrovert, spreading love and laughter freely. She goes above and beyond for her clients, often playing the role of counselor and best friend as well as legal adviser and support worker.
The team is rounded off by Jay, the affable employability coach with an easy smile and a raft of stories from his long and winding career; Boguslaw, a part-time football coach with a brisk and authoritative manner which belies an accepting and sensitive heart; and Anna, a true fighter, who can frequently be heard dressing down hapless officials who fail to see, and feel, the pain and desperate circumstances her clients are going through.
This ragtag bunch are my heroes. They come from all walks of life, with divergent experiences, views and approaches, but all are bound by their desire to spread happiness. They give so much love, energy and goodwill to those who are in a dark and desperate time of need, thinking little of themselves and their own ego. Their intelligence and perseverance are admirable and impressive, their warmth and optimism infectious.
If you would like to donate, fundraise or volunteer for Glass Door please visit their website: http://www.glassdoor.org.uk/welcome.htm