The man who saved his own life through volunteering

Volunteers at St Vincent’s furniture store (Luke Cameron)

It’s not unusual to experience setbacks in life, and most people, with the right support, can overcome them. But sometimes, a tragic circumstance such as a difficult childhood or the death of a loved one can set us off course. In these situations it takes a special encounter to get back on track and make a full recovery.

The St Vincent de Paul Society (SVP) is a Catholic charity which provides that grace filled encounter for many distressed and suffering people each year. The 8000 members of the SVP provide friendship to thousands of lonely, isolated and marginalised people at home, in hospital, or in residential homes.

On top of this, 500 volunteers in community support projects around the country provide practical assistance to people in need through community shops, debt and advice centres and furniture stores. Many of these volunteers have themselves come from difficult circumstances and, determined to ‘give something back’, they join the SVP as a means of helping others. What often unfolds is a journey of self-discovery and growth. For them, volunteering with the SVP has transformed their lives.

Nick says volunteering with the SVP literally saved his life. Nick has been helping out at the SVP’s Sheffield Furniture store for over ten years. As a young lad, he would pinch bottles of his grandad’s homemade wine and was a serious drinker by the age of 9. By the time he reached his twenties he was an alcoholic.

When his doctor gave him three months to live Nick realised he had to do something about his habit. He entered rehabilitation for drug and alcohol addiction and emerged from rehab with nervous anxiety and depression. He found himself having to put his life back together from scratch with very few resources. He was given an unfurnished council flat, but without any financial resource, he had no means of buying himself a sofa or a bed.

It was then that Nick had his first encounter with the SVP. The Sheffield SVP Furniture Store stepped in and furnished his flat for him. Nick felt that he wanted to “give something back” and once he had settled into his flat he began volunteering with the SVP. For the past ten years Nick has spent three days a week making up packs of cutlery, bedding, and emergency supplies for people just like he was, having nothing to live with at home.

Nick says he used to love art but over the years of alcohol abuse he found he could no longer motivate himself to draw. Recently, as a sign of his recovery, he’s started picking up a pencil again. He says that because he’s “a bit of a recluse” his drawing gives him solace and helps him to enjoy his own company.

Being a loner hasn’t stopped Nick making friends at Sheffield furniture store. He says that often when he’s having a cigarette break he will chat to people on the street, relating to their experiences. His own past suffering has given him compassion and understanding. Nick says: “You’re giving people a start in life. It’s nice to know that there are people I can make a difference to. The smiles on their faces when I go in their house lets me know I’ve helped them – the furniture is second hand but it’s a starting place.”

Vincentian Saint, St Elizabeth Ann Seton, once said: “Take every day as a ring which you must engrave, adorn, and embellish with your actions, to be offered up in the evening at the altar of God.”

Volunteers like Nick as well as many other volunteers of the SVP find meaning in their daily lives by helping others.

To volunteer with an SVP project, or to become a member of your local SVP parish group, visit, email or telephone 020 7703 3030.