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Pietro Servini is a postgrad maths student at UCL, and also a long-standing volunteer at the Dorcas Befriending Project in Islington. He’s written about his experiences for out latest guest blog …

It was 2007 – and thus a long time ago – that I first came across the Dorcas Befriending Project, or just the Dorcas Project as it was then known.  The project co-ordinator, Hervé, was sitting – temporarily alone – in the cloisters at UCL’s Volunteering Fair.  Drawn like a fly to light, I went up to him and sealed my fate.

Dorcas, as Hervé explained to me at the time, paired volunteers with elderly or isolated people in Islington: those who didn’t have many visitors, whose friends had passed away, who didn’t have any family, who were confined to the small world of their flat, who were unable to get out and feel the sun on their back and wind in their hair.  People who were lonely, who felt forgotten, who had little to look forward to.  The Dorcas volunteers would visit such a person once a week, every week, to give him or her something to look forward to, someone to talk to, somebody to help them, somebody who would bring the sunshine in or take them outside.  Somebody who cared.  A friend.

Following an intensive evening of training, Hervé took me along and introduced me to my first ‘client’, Nicky, a man in his 40s who suffered from chronic obesity and couldn’t leave his flat.  I taught Nicky how to play cards and we played religiously every week for hours, whilst talking about the Gunners.  By the end, Nicky was a friend.

The next person I visited was Bill, a lot older at 96 and a real gentleman.  On sunny days, we’d go walking round the block and sit on park benches, where he’d peer inquisitively at all around him.  Next was Cornelius, elderly and completely deaf due to a bomb blast during the war.  But he could lip read perfectly and still remembered how to speak, so he could tell me as we sat in Argyle Square Gardens how back in the day many of the houses around us used to be brothels and how much London had changed.  Then I saw Giuseppe, of a venerable age and, like me, originally Italian, who spoke of the Italian Community in Clerkenwell in its halcyon days of the early 1900s.  And showed me photos of the war.  I now visit Bob, a pilot in the RAF during said war, who loves his planes and has seen the world.

By the end, and the end was death, all of them were friends and I went to the funeral of most.  Nick was the hardest, perhaps because he was the first, perhaps because he was young, perhaps because it was unexpected.  It was the end of my first year exams, I was out celebrating and Hervé phoned me to tell me: it made me terribly sad.  When Bill died, then Cornelius, all after less than a year of my visits, I began to think that I was a curse.  But the people I’ve visited are elderly and are bound to leave sooner rather than later.  Ultimately, it’s a privilege and a joy to enliven the final years of their lives and learn from their experiences.

So much has changed since I first saw Hervé sitting at a small stall at a Volunteering Fair.  Perhaps the greatest change came in 2011, following the withdrawal of council funding as a result of government cuts.  That could have been the end of Dorcas, but as volunteers who were experiencing the wonderful impact we had on the lives of those we were visiting, we refused to let that happen.  We set up the Dorcas Befriending Project as a new charity, appointed trustees and worked to get Dorcas to rise again from the ashes.  Today, it’s our charity and exciting times are ahead with a proposed merge with another local charity.

I’ve made some great new friends and met many fantastic people through my time with Dorcas.  First and foremost are the people I’ve visited: we’re a charity about building friendships and you’re given the complete freedom to do so.  Everyone I’ve visited has been very different and sometimes it requires a bit of effort to gain their acceptance, but it’s always incredibly rewarding and fulfilling in the end.  Secondly are my fellow volunteers, who I meet with every few months at our social events in the pub: a diverse and eclectic bunch, but who are all motivated by the same desire to care for those who have been largely forgotten by society.

And then, of course, there’s Hervé, who has now left his post with the society.  He was sitting the last time I saw him too, on a sunny Summer’s day in 2015.  But he was sitting at home, with his wife and child, and I’d gone over for tea.

Has Pietro inspired you to try some volunteering? Visit our online directory of opportunities from across London.