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Paul Colbeck shares his experiences of volunteering at the Railway Museum and at a COVID-19 vaccination centre.

For my starting point we have to go back to 2011 when I retired from full time employment. In the final few months my wife bought me a book entitled The Beginner’s Guide to Retirement. This pointed out many potential problems retirees can face, but sense of purpose and socialising were ones to keep an eye on. In addition to running my own business, I decided to volunteer with many different organisations. Many of these have fallen by the wayside over time, leaving just the Railway Museum to fit round my business.

Fast forward to 2020 and over 2,000 trips on the miniature railway later, I drove my last train in March before the museum had to close for the first lockdown. I had a long list of rainy day projects which I started—and even finished many of them. I’d been working from home for nine years, so no change there. There were no regular meetings to physically attend, but found I quite liked Zoom, and recently did a Friday morning talk for the museum. The museum support in general has been very proactive throughout the pandemic.

Late summer the Railway Museum re-opened and it was hoped that certain attractions could restart later in the year. Requests of interest for volunteers were sent out, so I said yes. Miniature railway training started mid-October for a planned service to start in the following week. The training and instruction which had gone into COVID-safe working was well thought-out. This gave me confidence to attend my first shift.

In late October we turned up for our first working shift during the pandemic. Passengers would buy a timed departure ticket and then join a socially distanced queue. We would clean the seats and touch points as our guests looked on and then they would join, one ‘bubble’ at a time. It was really good to talk and answer questions. The cleaning seemed to go down well with all who attended. I suppose I expected our system to be appreciated because I look for the same things when I visit attractions.

Miniature railway carriages on track, with clear plastic screens separating the seats
The miniature railway set up for COVID-safe running

What did take me by surprise was the collective positive feeling from all the colleagues on site on that day. In fact, what are the chances of only having ‘glass half full’ people on all my shifts until the end of the year? This short period was the highlight of my time at the museum, so you can imagine how disappointed I felt when the museum closed again as we went into another lockdown.

What next? Doing nothing until the museum reopens wouldn’t help my need for purpose and socialising. I noticed in a national newspaper that the Royal Voluntary Service was looking for more members, so my wife and I downloaded the app and waited for jobs. At the time of writing, I have clocked up 961 volunteering hours and yet done nothing. After a month we realised that our RVS membership was going nowhere.

We’d noticed on York community social media pages that the local vaccination centre was looking for volunteers. After contacting the volunteer manager we completed the rather good e-learning package and DBS check. After an induction day with 20 others we were good to go. With jobs to fill at the weekend, we joined the roster.

The York vaccination centre has 315 volunteer shifts to cover each week, although that is set to increase, and at full capacity the centre can process 3 jabs every minute. Last time I worked shifts was in 2010, so I was really looking forward to my favourite way of working. The Friday late turn was our first shift. Talking to people as they arrived in their cars was really good. As you can imagine most are exited, but some are a little concerned.

Paul getting ready to welcome visitors to the vaccination centre at Askham Bar

Our next shift was Sunday morning, which is when we heard that 15 million people had had their first vaccination. That is pretty powerful stuff and very emotional. We try to volunteer a couple of shifts each week. The shifts are dictated by the vaccine supply so there can be short notice changes. I have never been thanked by so many people in such a short space of time!

A woman in high-visibility vest and face mask stands by some temporary fencing. A banner on the fence reads 'NHS, working in partnership with local GPs'
Karen also volunteers at the centre

Lots of people doing their little bit can achieve so much when there is a common goal. I do miss that from my big railway days. For me, volunteering in a pandemic has been very positive. A friend thinks it “may lead my life in a new direction”. Do I want things to return to normal? Maybe not. I am looking forward to the museum reopening and operating the miniature railway to the improved system. Hopefully I’ll also be able to keep volunteering with the NHS.

4 comments on “Volunteering in a pandemic

    1. Thank you Peter. This was written over two months ago so details have now changed. Yesterday was really busy and it was said we delivered 3,179 vaccinations which is almost 4.5 jabs every minute. Will see what tomorrow brings.

    1. Thank you Craig. Was guard, with Mike driving, on the first passenger carrying miniature railway service for 2021 yesterday. It was good to be back, although the heavy rain stopped play. The vaccination centre is upping capacity over the weekend with early starts (06:00) and late finishes (23:00) so they need even more volunteers now.

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