You get involved with charities to do something good, right? To selflessly offer your time to benefit others less fortunate. It's important to get something out of it yourself, though. No point turning up to something every week that you dread going to or resent the time spent there.
The first time I heard about North London Cares was in a text message from a mate who'd been to one or two of the film evenings. "This is definitely something you should do. A great charity." It was exactly up my street - both figuratively and physically - as they match you with an isolated person that lives in close proximity to you. The time requirements also seemed ideal for me: once a week at a mutually agreeable time and day.
I was partnered up with older neighbour, Mitzi, who was increasingly falling into isolation.
After 90 minutes of quietly listening to Mitzi's anxieties, insecurities and medical problems during the first home visit, the member of North London Cares staff accompanying me on my first visit asked, "are you sure you're happy continuing to visit this lady?" It had been a tough introduction visit, no question about that, and I hadn't expected that level of despair.
I said yes. I lied though, I wasn't happy. I wasn't qualified to objectively listen and support an old person with this level of distress. How could I help a person who was in such a bad place that she cried in front of a stranger after knowing me for 20 minutes? I'm not proud of it but my first thoughts were: 'I have a full-time job, I work long hours, will I be able to cope with the emotions of an isolated elderly person week-in, week-out?'
There was no instant improvement to Mitzi's unhappiness. I'm not sure what I expected, to be honest, but the witty jokes I tried and attempted conversation seemed to be having little impact. She'd been recommended to North London Cares by a friend who had noticed she'd become increasingly isolated from society and was effectively cutting herself off from the outside world.
But what does a 20-something bloke from Yorkshire have in common with a 70-something year old woman living on her own in North London?
Well, the breakthrough came from the most unlikely source. Mitzi suffers from neuralgia, pain in one or more nerves, and it presents itself as extreme head aches brought on by exposure to wind or cold weather. Mitzi had been invited to the Proms and, nervous about being affected by the winter weather, politely declined. "Anyway, I'm more into Rap and Hip Hop music than classical. You know, Plan B and things". My initial thinking, and accidental blurting out, was "Eh?". Mitzi went on to explain how she respected Ben Drew (and she named him) because "he tells it how it is, although, he does use a few too many swear words".
The following week, I took Plan B's new album around on my visit to Mitzi and, after showing her how to turn her CD player on, we cranked 'Ill Manors' up loud and listened as he spat his lyrics. It was the happiest I think I've seen her, to this day.
I imagine it's quite a big deal for an elderly lady, alone and cut-off, to accept a young scruffy bearded man into her home for "a chat" every week and our meet-ups til now had mainly been about just offering a listening ear.
Meeting up with Mitzi, however, has definitely become more of a two-way street than I'd imagined before. While I hope I've eased some anxieties and minimized some of the isolation she previously felt, she has provided me with support that I would expect of my close friends. When changes came in my professional life, including two new job roles and the stresses that come with that process, Mitzi showed an express interest through interviews to resignations and first day nerves.
That same mate who introduced me to the charity sadly died and Mitzi was there to offer comfort and support.
Mitzi's is a friendship I have grown to value and it's thanks to Fran that the two of us are able to support one another.