Last year the UK experienced one of the most devastating periods in recent history, with terror attacks in both London and Manchester as well as the tragic Grenfell Tower fire leaving the nation in mourning.
But amid the sadness, destruction and loss of life, more than 1,000 British Red Cross volunteers were working alongside emergency services to offer support and solidarity to local communities. They provided first aid; gave emotional and practical support at rest centres; helped people who were bereaved or searching for missing loved ones; managed a 24-hour support line; and sorted through tons of items generously donated by the public.
Ahead of Red Cross Week (6-12 May), renowned photographer Rankin has captured some of the remarkable volunteers in a new series, celebrating those who’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty to help others.
The series features people like Laszlo Kelemen, 33, an intensive care practitioner from London, who started volunteering with the charity in his home country of Romania when he was just 15 years old. Last year Laszlo was part of the charity’s response to the London Bridge attack, Grenfell Tower fire and Finsbury Park attack, providing psychosocial support to those affected.
“The Red Cross is part of who I am. Like many other people who live in London, and across the UK, I couldn’t believe the horrific series of incidents that unfolded last year,” Laszlo said. “Before last summer I felt like someone who just lived in London but now I feel that I’m part of this city because I was able to help. I’ve experienced its very worst but also its best.”
Here are some of the other selfless volunteers who helped local communities through incredibly tough times.
Sairah, 46, and Hannah Merchant, 19, from Kent.
Mother and daughter Sairah and Hannah Merchant travelled to London last June to help with the response to the Grenfell Tower fire. They both used to live in Bayswater, so felt compelled to help when the British Red Cross put a call out for volunteers. It was 19-year-old Hannah’s first emergency since signing up as a volunteer. Sairah is now training to become a paramedic after becoming passionate about emergency response.
Sairah said: “We used to live not too far from Grenfell. My kids used to go to the school nearby and we still have friends in the area. When we were watching what happened on the news it all felt so personal to us. There was no question that we wanted to go and help. Mostly we provided psychosocial support and helped with minor injuries and cuts and bruises, but many people just needed a listening ear. It was an extremely difficult time, and we just tried to help in any way that we could.
“Hannah is my pride and joy. Most 19-year-olds would be a bit nervous to step forward in times like that but she’s never scared to get involved.”
Rukia Shepherd, 41, from Bury in Manchester.
Mother-of-three and teaching assistant Rukia was compelled to support her fellow Mancunians after hearing the news of the attack on Manchester Arena. Rukia was deployed to Oldham hospital to provide psychosocial support to the relatives of the deceased. She then went to support the public at St Ann’s Square, the space set up for mourners at the heart of the city.
“Nothing prepares you for a scene like the one at Oldham hospital. No one spoke, the silence was deafening,” she said. “Slowly we began to provide comfort and reassurance to those who needed it. It wasn’t just families and friends; it was the hospital staff too. It was very sombre in that room. It’s something that stays with you.
Two weeks later Rukia also travelled to London to support families who had been affected by Grenfell Tower fire.
Marilyn, 68, and Derek Williams, 71, from Horseham
Next year Marilyn and Derek will have been married for 50 years. They have been volunteering for the British Red Cross for 25 years, and did approximately 15 shifts in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, helping provide vital support to people within the community and their fellow volunteers. They also carried out outreach work with NHS teams, visiting many of the bereaved and members the public who were affected by the fire.
Derek said: “Nothing could ever really prepare you for something like the fire at Grenfell Tower. It was probably the most demanding and intense situation that we have ever been involved in, in the 25 years we have been volunteering for the British Red Cross.”
Marilyn said: “There must be hundreds of British Red Cross volunteers who have done extraordinary things over the 150 years or so that it’s been around. It is a privilege for us to do the things that we do, and to be part of this great movement.”
Farheen Chaudhry, 43, from Paddington.
Farheen, 43, has been volunteering for the charity for over two years, working in refugee support and emergency response. When she first signed up she didn’t expect that her local neighbourhood was going to experience an emergency like the Grenfell Tower fire. Farheen volunteered for several weeks supporting with local outreach work.
“I can see the tower from my living room window. When I opened the blinds on the morning of the fire, it was surreal,” she said. “Straight away I knew that this was going to be a huge emergency as I had worked in disaster and emergency zones before and understood the implications.”
Pearl Mullan, 57, from Ballykelly in Northern Ireland.
Despite never having flown before, Pearl, who has volunteered with British Red Cross for 12 years, felt compelled to get on a plane to London last summer to help support people affected by the Grenfell Tower fire.
“I was very nervous going across,” she said. “I was nervous getting on the plane for the first time. We managed it okay in the end. I just thought this is something I am going to have to do if I want to go there and help people. ”
Elaine Meakin, 57, from Fife in Scotland.
Elaine Meakin headed to London from Scotland to help those affected by the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower. “As soon as you got off the train, the tower was there. You just couldn’t take it in,” she said. “Walking to the rest centre, there were all the tributes and messages. It was just really moving. There was a picture of a wee girl who was missing. It was drawn by children at the nursery and it said: ‘We miss you. Come back soon.’
“I just wanted to help in some way. Even just talking to somebody and making somebody smile because you’ve got a Scottish accent. I felt very proud to be there.”
Marilisa Casturà, 44 from Norwich.
Marilisa Casturà dedicated her weekends and evenings to providing a calm and supportive ear to hundreds of people affected by last summer’s incidents on the British Red Cross Emergency Support helpline, alongside working a full time job.
“I took calls from so many people who just needed someone to listen – from concerned members of the public to distraught relatives. Some of these people’s lives had been changed forever by what had happened,′ she said.
She also travelled to London to support the families who had been affected by Grenfell Tower fire. “At the rest centre I remember sitting down with someone, making them a cup of tea and just listening to them – even though it was a small gesture they were so grateful. You just help in whatever way you can,” she said.
Julia Reason, 51, from Cheshire.
Julia Reason from Warrington, Cheshire, has been a volunteer with the British Red Cross for over eight years. Following the Manchester Arena attack Julia was deployed to Oldham hospital, to provide a quiet space for hospital staff who needed respite. She also provided emotional support to people at the memorial that took place in memory of the victims in the city centre. In June Julia then travelled to London to support the families who had been affected by the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower.
“I first heard about the Manchester Arena attack whilst I was watching TV. When something terrible like that happens, especially when it’s so close to home, you just want to do anything you can to help,” she said.
“The events of last year have had a lasting impact on me. But as a volunteer for the British Red Cross we’re privileged to be able to help people when they need it most, and support them through emergencies like these.”
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