Category: Volunteering

What did the Red Cross do in WWI?

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If you’re one of the ten million people enjoying the new series of Downton Abbey, you’ll know that one of the characters, Lady Sybil, has joined the Red Cross.

This year’s series follows the Crawley family and their servants as they try to survive the First World War.

The British Red Cross was instrumental in helping soldiers survive the appalling conditions of the Great War. Our archivist, Jenny Shaw, explains how the Red Cross helped:

During the First World War the British Red Cross, operating as the Joint War Committee with the Order of St John, recruited and trained thousands of volunteers who served alongside professional staff mainly in the UK, but also overseas.

These volunteers provided vital services to the sick and wounded, helping  ease pressure on the medical and military services. There were four main services provided by the Red Cross during the war, paid for by extensive fundraising.

1. Transport for the wounded

We were the first organisation to supply motorised ambulances, instead of horse-drawn ambulances, to the battlefields with the first convoy arriving in France in September 1914.

As more men were called up to fight, women were trained to drive the ambulances as well. Trains and boats were also equipped to act as mobile hospitals.

2. Auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes

Over 3,000 auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes were organised, equipped and staffed by the Red Cross. In readiness for war, the Red Cross had already secured buildings, equipment and staff so many temporary hospitals were available as soon as wounded men began to arrive back in the UK from the battlefield.

Thousands of women volunteered to serve in their local hospital supported by medical professionals. Patients at these hospitals were generally less seriously wounded or those who needed to convalesce. Servicemen often preferred the auxiliary hospitals because discipline was not as strict as in military hospitals, they were less crowded and the surroundings were more homely.

3. Work parties

Work parties were set up across the country to help supply hospitals. Women often did knitting and sewing in their own homes to produce items such pyjamas, socks and dressing gowns for patients. Instructions and patterns were provided which helped to make the most of limited supplies.

4. Wounded and missing soldiers

Centres for recording the wounded and missing were set up in France with Red Cross searchers going to villages where fighting had taken place and to local hospitals. Information could then be passed to families nervously waiting for news of loved ones.

Hurray for International Youth Day

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Weirdly, for an organisation that’s knocking on 141 years old, the British Red Cross seems to be getting younger. Which is fitting, in its own way, because tomorrow – 12 August – is International Youth Day.

You probably won’t know this, but half the volunteer base of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) worldwide is now made up of young people. That amounts to 6.5 million – yes, 6.5 million – young humanitarians in our global Movement.

And here in the UK, almost a fifth of Red Cross volunteers (6,000 of them) are under 26 years old. As a group, they make a huge contribution – and blow out of the water that hoary old cliché about charity work being the preserve of respectable, middle-aged ladies.

In the past year alone (which also, incidentally, marked the UN International Year of Youth), young volunteers helped with the Red Cross’ mammoth response to the heavy winter snows, featured in the Red Cross’ Humanitarian Citizen Awards, organised a national youth conference and launched a new leadership programme for young volunteers.

And last November, 13 ambitious young volunteers even staged a coup and stormed the senior management team meeting at Red Cross HQ, seizing the reins of power. (Don’t worry, though. The temporary coup d’etat was all part of Takeover Day, an annual event where young people across the country get a chance to try their hand at running things.)

Many young volunteers say they joined the Red Cross because it has such a humungous choice of services, particularly for young people. So whether your interest is first aid, fundraising, responding to emergencies or helping refugees, there will be something for you.

The ‘Big Society’ risks creating a smaller, less effective, voluntary sector

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One year on, the government’s Big Society is still paddling along the rocky shores.  Despite well-meaning intentions the initiative is still failing to live up to expectations.


At the heart of the Big Society is the desire for greater active citizenship and a thriving voluntary and community sector through the opening up of public service delivery. No one can really object to this.  Indeed, as an organisation with over 30,000 volunteers in the UK and a deliverer of some public contracts, the British Red Cross sees everyday the dedication and difference volunteers make, as well as the benefits to their communities and wider society.

But in reality, many charities are struggling to survive; the cuts are hitting them hard; they are scaling back their valuable work in local communities and in some cases ceasing to exist, all at a time when demand for such services is increasing due to the downturn.  This is not surprising given the recent report that voluntary sector will lose more than £110 million in local authority funding this year alone. Is it any wonder that many believe that the Big Society is being used as a cover for cuts?  And more importantly, is it fair that the most vulnerable – the isolated elderly citizen or young carer – in society bare the brunt of these decisions?

Large charities, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau and Refugee Council, as well as smaller ones, are feeling the pinch.  The British Red Cross has also faced some challenges, particularly in our health and social care work, with commissioners asking us to deliver more for less or in some cases ceasing to provide funding for specific services.

In London our ‘home from hospital’ services have been cut by local authorities. In some case, this simple provision helping elderly people get settled in at home after a stay in hospital is now being provided by the private sector – but patients are having to pay for it. In other cases the service has been cut completely. For elderly people living alone, this service makes a huge difference to their wellbeing, allowing them to leave hospital in the first place and easing the transition home. Sadly it seems to be vulnerable people like this who are so far bearing the brunt.

Our work helping asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants, who are at high risk of exploitation, has also significantly increased due to other support charities having their funding cut or ended. Ironically, the evidence shows that it is preventative services – those that in the long-run save the state money – that are being disproportionately cut.

This is stifling the voluntary sector, one of the key levers to supporting some of the most disadvantaged in society and to building sustainable, responsive communities.

Let’s make no mistake: these decisions are having a detrimental impact on the community and voluntary sector and consequently the kind of Big Society to which the Prime Minister aspires.  We are in danger of having a smaller, less effective, voluntary sector.  We will lose forever the specialist and unique skills contained within voluntary organisations and their unique ability to engage with some of the hardest to reach.

There is an urgent need to address the impact spending cuts are having on the voluntary sector. In recognising the need to address the public finances, the voluntary sector accepts its responsibility and need to reform, belt tightening is to be expected and, as with our private sector cousins, we are no strangers to salary and recruitment freezes, spending reviews and other measures aimed at bringing down costs. But with many voluntary organisations reliant on government funding to deliver much needed public services, all the belt tightening in the world cannot make up for the profound loss of income the cuts represent. We will do our part, but for the sake of all those we help, the voluntary sector cannot become an easy target.

Government, local and central, has a role to play to ensure the voluntary sector is not disproportionately affected.  Cutting funding in the short-term can result in higher costs in the future and preventing such pain in the first place seems to be the most sensible thing to do.

In addition, there needs to be a drive to reduce the barriers to meaningful and regular volunteering, as well as a wider acknowledgement of the benefits gained.  It is concerning that the Third Sector Research Centre found that 31% of the population provides 87% of voluntary hours and charitable giving, most of which are likely to be middle-aged, well-educated and based in prosperous areas.

For the Big Society to succeed it should be judged on how well it engages and meets the needs of the most vulnerable in our communities. There is no shortage of commitment from the voluntary and community sector, but the more the voluntary sector is forced to cut, and the harder its job becomes, the louder the Big Society naysayers will become.

An edited version of this post was published in The Times on 3 August 2011

More information about our social care services in the UK

Separating fact and fiction: do you know the difference between refugees and asylum seekers?

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With so many myths surrounding refugees and asylum seekers we are trying to sort the fact from the fiction this Refugee Week. So, do you know the difference between a refugee and asylum seeker?

1. Match the description to the term below:

1. Economic migrant
2. Refused asylum seeker
3. Refugee
4. Asylum seeker

a. Has fled their homeland and submitted an asylum application to the authorities. While awaiting this decision has a legal right to stay in the country.
b. Has had their claim for asylum accepted by the government.
c. Has been denied protection from the authorities and been told to leave the country.
d. Has moved to another country to work and may or may not have a legal work permit.

2. We’re all familiar with the scare stories about asylum seekers ‘flooding’ into the UK. But how do these tales of mass invasion stand up against the facts?

How many of the world’s displaced come to the UK?

2. How much of total immigration numbers do asylum seekers account for in the UK?

3. How many asylum seekers are allowed to stay in the UK?

3: What countries do asylum seekers come from?

There are almost 40 million people throughout the world who have been displaced because of conflict and persecution. A very small number of people actually make it to the UK to apply for asylum.

Put the following countries in order by the number of refugees:

  • Afganistan
  • Iran
  • Somalia
  • Sudan
  • Zimbabwe

Leave your answers in the comments or on our Facebook page.

The British Red Cross and refugees

The Red Cross has a long tradition of providing practical and emotional support to vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.

We help refugees adjust to life in the UK in a number of ways – from providing provisions for those facing severe hardship, to giving orientation support and friendly advice to those settling into a new, unfamiliar place.

Want to get involved?

Every year, our volunteers help thousands of vulnerable people – including unaccompanied children – adjust to life in a new country and access vital services. Could you help a stranger in a strange land?

Apply to volunteer

Donate to our refugee appeal

Answers can be found in our booklet, Refugees and asylum seekers: The truth behind the myths

Charitable parents raise children who give back

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You’re far more likely to donate your time or money to charity if you saw your parents do so when you were growing up.

A study conducted by Grey Matter Research & Consulting has found that parents’ behaviour is a major factor in whether adults decide to volunteer or donate – bigger than their religious or political beliefs, or other personal factors.

Ron Sellers, president of Grey Matter Research, said “While the research doesn’t show an absolute one-to-one correlation, in real terms today’s volunteers are 125 per cent more likely to have come from parents who encouraged their children to volunteer, and 145 per cent more likely to have come from parents who frequently volunteered, than they are to have come from parents who really never did those things.”

The same goes for donations. When parents talked to their children about the charities they financially supported and why, their kids became more likely to donate their own money as adults.

I’m approaching my fourth anniversary at the British Red Cross, and in my time here I’ve met dozens of volunteers who’ve told me their parents used to be – or still are – active volunteers. I’ve met several families who volunteer together, giving back to their community while also spending valuable time together.

I’ve also heard stories from many people who donate to the Red Cross because the charity became important to them when they were children – often because their parents talked to them about life-saving help the Red Cross gave them when they needed it.

Did your parents show you the importance of supporting charities when you were growing up? If you have children, do you share your charitable activities with them?

Disaster Response Challenge leads Dave to Pakistan

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Dave Luddington went from Red Cross first aid volunteer to fire and emergency support service (FESS) volunteer to delegate in Pakistan within three years.

Dave spent a month as a Red Cross delegate in flood-hit Pakistan, in September and October last year. His role was to manage the distribution of aid throughout a large region of the country.

Dave was already an event first aid and FESS volunteer when he took part in the Red Cross’ Disaster Response Challenge, which led to his recent delegate role. The event, in which participants respond to a hypothetical disaster under the guidance of trained delegates, was a eureka moment.

He said: “I’ve worked in warehouse logistics for over 20 years and had no idea that I could use these skills to help the Red Cross in a disaster situation. After taking part in the Disaster Response Challenge, I immediately applied to become a warehouse logistics delegate.”

Eighteen months later, Dave was fully trained and flying out to Pakistan – and now he can’t wait to go back. He said: “I’m looking forward to spending more time as a Red Cross delegate, going out to disaster areas and helping to save lives. It’s so rewarding.”

Why don’t you sign up for this year’s Disaster Response Challenge, in Hampshire, on 8-10 April or 23-25 September? Entrance costs just £50 (plus minimum sponsorship of £500). Although participation doesn’t guarantee a delegate role with the Red Cross, it’s a great introduction to our international emergency response work. And, of course, you’ll be helping us raise vital funds in the process.

First aider makes ice work of new skills

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first aid kitOur first aid volunteers often wonder when they happen to be passing by when accidents strike, whether they are in the right place at the right time or the right place at the wrong time. Whatever the answer, you never know when fate’s hand will place a needy person in your path.

For one brand new first aid volunteer, Kerry Roberts, 22, it was just moments after she had completed one of our first aid courses, in Manchester.

Kerry, from Warrington, had just left the course, and walked a couple of streets when she spotted a woman in her fifties who had slipped on the ice and fallen. She was unconscious. While a passerby called an ambulance, Kerry and another woman checked her breathing and cleared the casualty’s airway.

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Separated by snow: cancer sufferer reunited with blind husband

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emergency response volunteers in snowFor many of us the prolonged Arctic snap engulfing the country is inconvenient, especially for those caught up in travel chaos. But can you imagine what it’s like for a blind, diabetic, elderly man living in a remote village, whose house has no heating thanks to a prolonged power cut?

Carrie Metcalfe, one of our emergency response volunteers, has a good idea. The man in question was just one of many vulnerable people she’s been very busy helping in Lincolnshire throughout the recent bout of severe weather.

Carrie took vital provisions to the man, whose village was cut off by snowfall in early December. She recalled:

“The poor man had struggled through a three-day power cut. He had no heating, electricity or gas and needed food. Anita Moore, a fellow volunteer, and I gave him his first hot drink in three days.”

Meanwhile, the man’s wife, who has cancer, was in hospital in Nottingham where she was stuck following being discharged, unable to get home due to the weather.

“Anita and I – with the help of my 4×4 – managed to go and pick up the man’s wife from the hospital the next day.

“We had to do the conga down the drive through knee-deep snow to get her into the house, but it was worth it when the man and woman were finally reunited. They were very emotional, crying and holding each other. They’ve been married for 61 years, and up until now only ever spent two nights apart.

“It’s so rewarding to see the joy on people’s faces when they see  British Red Cross volunteers.  Even though we can’t fix everything, I feel we make a difference to people’s lives, which is why I love volunteering for the Red Cross.”

With the big freeze set to continue, make sure you’re prepared for bad weather.