It's the start of Volunteers' Week - an opportunity to celebrate the crucial difference that volunteers are making up and down the UK.

We enjoyed our catch up with tea party coordinators, Maureen and Sheila, who together volunteered with Re-engage for 100 years before finally retiring last year. 

They spoke to us about their memories of tea parties dating back to the early eighties, their experiences of volunteering and what support they would like to see for older people in the future.

What first drew you to volunteering for Re-engage? 

Maureen: The tea parties are such a simple idea and there’s so much kindness involved. I started out as a driver, and it felt such an easy way to help others. It had the added benefit of getting me out of the house occasionally.

Sheila: I was first introduced to Re-engage when I became a tea party host in London. I’ve always been interested in older people and hearing their life stories.

You shared responsibility for coordinating your local group.  How did that work? 

Maureen: Sheila and I have known each other for many years. We’re on the same wavelength and we get on very well.  We’re both extremely organised so nothing ever got overlooked. In the old days, Sheila would hand out her ‘yellow slips’, or fixtures lists, so that everyone knew the dates of forthcoming tea parties.  Sheila and I knew we could rely on each other to come up with the goods. 

Sheila: Between us, we always made sure that our guests received birthday and Christmas cards and that the tea party hosts knew when there was a birthday coming up.  

Why were the tea parties important to you? 

Maureen: Tea parties were always special occasions. Our guests would get dressed up and have their hair done – someone was coming to take them out to tea and they felt valued and cared for.

Sheila The hosts would pull out all the stops. They would bring out the best china and put on a real spread. The tea parties were such fun and I know our volunteers enjoyed them as much as the guests.  

One of the hosts would make a present for all our guests at Christmas every year; a lavender bag or a coat hanger. We were all part of the group because we wanted to be – there was never any sense of duty.

Maureen: Being in Oxford, we sometimes went to quite large houses where we could easily fit a dozen people around one table.  But I equally have many fantastic memories of the tea parties when we all squeezed into a tiny room. 

Do you have any special memories? 

Sheila: I remember Minerva and her 100th birthday celebration. She was always such a joy to be with and she had a very sharp mind too. You could ask her any question about Shakespeare and she would always know the answer.

Maureen: My granddaughters once stood in to host a tea party at the last minute and enjoyed making the cakes and sandwiches and serving the guests. There were so many characters in our group and I remember every one of them.

Did you learn anything from volunteering for Re-engage? 

Maureen: My husband died in 2020 and I quickly realised what living alone is like. I am lucky and can still go out independently and ride my bike.  Many of our guests could not go out alone, which is why the monthly teas were so important and a real treat.

Sheila: Our guests had all lived through two world wars and we had so much to learn from them. I remember a guest telling me all about the ration book that she took to the Co-op during the war. It’s a job to imagine life as it was. I also had my eyes opened to what loneliness was.  

What sort of support would you like to see for older people who are alone in the future? 

Maureen: I’d like to see even more opportunities for social connection. And I’d like to see more men involved in the tea parties. Sometimes it was difficult to get men to join our tea party group, but they got so much out of it when they did.  

Sheila: Most of the volunteers in our group were women, but I think men would enjoy volunteering too.

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