The volunteers who went virtual but still delivered Christmas

This Cambridge Life

The volunteers
who went virtual
but still delivered

Olivia Taylor and Vanessa Chuang standing by river

Olivia Taylor and Vanessa Chuang in the gardens of Clare College

Olivia Taylor and Vanessa Chuang in the gardens of Clare College

When Vanessa Chuang and Olivia Taylor became student volunteers, they had no idea they’d need to re-invent their activities as a virtual programme. Despite a turbulent year, they managed to keep supporting vulnerable clients in the local community – and to go ahead with their much-loved Christmas Present Campaign.

Vanessa: For a small organisation, Student Community Action (SCA) does a lot. Our foremost aim is to support people who are disadvantaged or vulnerable in Cambridge. We do this by running a number of projects and also through supporting other local volunteering initiatives.

Vanessa: In normal years we run about ten projects aimed at children through to elderly people and every age in between. Our wider goals are to create a culture of care and compassion within the Cambridge community, and to unite students who have a passion for volunteering.

Vanessa: The project I was in charge of was called Homework Help. We went into primary schools every Friday to tutor children who needed a little bit more support. After the work was done, we’d play games, chat about their week or just colour in pictures of Pokémon.  

Vanessa: It’s uplifting to end a very busy week full of lectures and uni work with a few hours helping children who will really benefit from some extra time in a small teaching group. I also love chatting to them about their week – children have a totally different perspective and it brought me back to simpler days.

Vanessa Chuang and Olivia Taylor sitting on benches

Vanessa: Being a member of SCA has brought a lot of happiness into my life. As an international student, it’s been especially important to me because SCA is an incredible community in itself. It’s a very inclusive, warm and welcoming society.

Olivia: That’s such an important point – I don’t think we can underestimate how much of an impact SCA has had on us as volunteers. There’s such a community within the organisation and between the volunteers and the clients. 

Olivia: As part of Taskforce (our umbrella project for initiatives supporting vulnerable adults) I visited an elderly lady in a care home. She had so many stories to tell, I’d be there for hours enjoying our conversation. She’d give me advice and teach me things. We developed a real friendship. It felt as if the visits were beneficial to both of us.

Olivia: I’d always go home from Bounce caked in shaving foam, slime or playdough. Bounce is a Saturday morning club for vulnerable or disadvantaged children. The club provided fun activities for the kids as well as respite for the parents. In our last session (although at the time we didn’t know it would be) we took the kids to a soft play area. I’m so pleased we did something special before lockdown.

Olivia: When the pandemic hit, the clients were at the top of my mind. I was worried about the effect on the kids and their education as some have difficult home situations. I was also worried about the parents not getting respite. Unfortunately, at times like this, vulnerable people are often the ones who are the hardest hit.

Olivia Taylor and Vanessa Chuang on bridge

Vanessa: We had to make the difficult decision to pause all of our face-to-face projects as our highest priority was the safety of our clients and volunteers. 

Vanessa: But we still wanted to support our most vulnerable clients through this time and so in April we launched a new project called Anxiety Slayers. This involved fostering meaningful bonds through Skype, Facetime or regular telephone calls. Some volunteers and clients even became pen-pals. A lot of our clients have said it really helped to alleviate the negative mental health implications of lockdown, social distancing and self-isolation. 

Vanessa: Because the volunteers were in regular contact with our clients, they discovered that some had issues accessing groceries or medicines. Once we were alerted to this, we were able to start delivering food parcels and medication. 

Olivia: A brand new initiative we are working on is called Celebration Surprises. We’re getting referrals for kids who have a birthday coming up. As well as sending some presents, we prepare a song or write a poem and perform it to them live via a video call on their birthday. I can’t really sing but we want to be celebrating with them as lockdown birthdays aren’t that fun! 

Vanessa: Another initiative we had to consider was our Christmas Present Campaign. Every year students donate, wrap and deliver Christmas presents to vulnerable and disadvantaged families across the city.

Vanessa: We felt it was really important for the campaign to go ahead and its great to see that this year has been as successful as any other. The students have been donating amazing gifts. One lady loves gardening, so we requested a special garden jigsaw, and there’s even a dog called Banjo who is going to get some treats. We are super grateful for everyone who has helped us out so much.

Olivia: This has been a difficult year for many and so treasuring the highlights feels more important than ever. When I look back on my time in Cambridge, many of the memories I will smile at the most will be from SCA.

Vanessa Chuang (St Catharine's College) is Student President and Olivia Taylor (Clare College) is Publicity Officer for SCA. Both are third year students studying Land Economy and Psychological and Behavioural Sciences respectively.

This profile is part of This Cambridge Life – stories from the people that make Cambridge University unique.

Words: Charis Goodyear. Photography: Lloyd Mann.