On Sunday 3rd January at church, Lucy was called to be a Relief Society Teacher, and it was also Jack's first time blessing the sacrament. As I watched Tom passing the Sacrament, I felt very proud of my kids!
I didn't get a good sleep at all that night, from nerves over starting my Fire Fighter training course on Monday 4th.
I had no idea what to expect from the course, only that it would be quite hard. I'd bumped into two local Fire Fighters in Tesco over Christmas, one of whom was Lisa who I know, and they'd said to be prepared to hit the ground running. Because I'd had such a bad night's sleep, I was really worried about how strenuous the first day would be, because I felt wrecked!
Luckily, Monday was classroom based. There were twelve of us on the course, and we turned up at 8.30am at the Training Centre and had an introduction to the day. We learnt a bit about each other - there were two other girls on the course (one was a gym instructor and amateur boxer, and the other was a professional hockey player), the guys were from a variety of professions, and we ranged in age from 19 to 46 - two of them were older than me. We then had various presentations, were given our own fire gear, then had a Health and Safety course run by a Scottish guy who made me teacher's pet when he heard I was born in Glasgow. We were a bit taken a back to be told we'd have an exam that day, but it wasn't too bad. I was most relieved to get through the first day OK!
I also had evening sessions of 3 hours on Tuesday and Thursday that week. They were physically HARD! We warmed up by jogging in full fire gear (boots, trousers, under layer of clothes, tunics, heavy leather gloves, flash hood, helmet) round the training yard several time, and that was bad enough! We then spent most of the evening with fire hoses - rolling them out and then back up again. It doesn't sound like much, but was completely exhausting. There were moments when I was so shattered that I wondered if I wanted to be there any more - it seemed crazy to be putting myself through this when I didn't actually have to! Everything was very disciplined, with us learning how to address people, how to run out from the garage where we get our gear on, how to stand to attention/at ease, how we 'number off' etc.
Near the end of Thursday evening, I really had nothing left in me, and when I was stretching out my arms during a break, the shoulder I was seeing the osteopath about started hurting again. I was almost relieved to not be able to go back out and continue training, but I was also really upset at what it would mean if I couldn't continue after that. I had to sit out with one of the 'Watches' while he put it in a report. If I missed any sessions (other than the last 20 minutes of the session I had missed) then I wouldn't be able to stay on the course. They just said that I should turn up on the next session the following Monday if I felt OK, but if I didn't, they were happy to defer me to the next course.
I had a complete turmoil of feelings that evening - I didn't want to have to wait three months and start again with a new squad, and I wondered if I even wanted to carry on at all. But I also didn't want to get this far only to quit.
I didn't have too much time to worry about it though because at 3am the next morning (Friday 8th) Lucy and I drove to Huntingdon to pick up Andy Collings, two of his kids - Oli and Jordan, and his niece Emma.
From there we drove to the Eurotunnel terminal where we met up with other church members, and got the train to Calais for a service project.
We were travelling to Calais to help at a makeshift camp of about 7000 refugees/migrants called 'The Jungle'. Under the direction of our church Stake Presidency, and organised by Nina Kerrou (who had initially got involved by herself), the Stake had collected thousands of items of food and clothing which people drove down in vans, and more of us were driving down to help in the warehouse of the charity we were working with called 'Care4Calais', and to help in the camp itself.
It wasn't really brilliant timing for me to be going, plus I was nervous about driving, and I wasn't sure I understood enough about the politics of it all - for example, if it was a good idea in the grand scheme of things to help at the camp, if that meant the camp would remain just about viable and therefore have more people coming and ending up in the same grim conditions. Lucy really wanted to go when she heard about the project though, and I wasn't going to let her go alone, so went with her. I figured that good would come of it one way or another, and that we would probably learn a lot. At the end of the day, we would be helping people in need.
My shoulder was still sore, but manageable if I didn't raise my arm too much. The driving was OK.
Most people slept in the car on the way down, and I had a rest in the Euro tunnel. When it came time to drive off, the car wouldn't start! I must have left my lights on or something. I was pretty far forwards on the train so was blocking a lot of people from getting off!
Here is Oli, Andy and Lucy pushing the car along the train!
The Robinsons from Northampton were in the car behind us, so Simon helped push us off too. Only when he'd been out with us for a while did he realise that he had the keys to his car, so his car was now blocking everyone on the train!
Oli and I, finally off the train!
Andy jump starting my car from the Robinsons'.
Getting to the warehouse was fun too! We all met up at a petrol station, then traveled in convoy to the Care4Calais warehouse. I'd put the address in my satnav, and at one point everyone went off one way, while I followed my satnav a different way. I thought I'd better turn round and follow everyone else, but then they realised they'd got it wrong and we ended up meeting up again.
We parked along the road outside the warehouse, went in and gathered round for instructions. Here we all are in our church 'Helping Hands' tabbards, ready to get going!
Some of the group were going into the Jungle that morning to distribute goods, and Lucy and I were in the group who stayed behind and helped in the warehouse, sorting out donated clothing and filling up plastic bags with clothing and toiletries to hand out. Others of our group worked to build shelving for the warehouse and things to use in the camp. It was good chatting with other volunteers from mainly England who had come for varying amounts of time. They said how great it was to have us all there, and asked about the church. I had some really good conversations with people.
Lucy and some of her friends. They spent some time assembling tents in the yard, making sure all the parts were there.
In the afternoon, we piled into our cars and drove to the Jungle. We were going to help clear up rubbish. The surrounding area is Policed fairly heavily, and we were turned away from the first place we tried to get into the camp (after getting a bit lost on the way... Andy's favourite phrase of the weekend was 'you get to see more of France with Helen!' - our car did have an lot of fun!),
At the camp, I was slightly apprehensive, because I had read and heard about the dangers in the Jungle, but we were put into smaller groups who we had to keep track of, and as a larger group we all stayed together. There were a few volunteers there from other organisations too, plus a couple of migrants helped, and we spent a couple of hours picking up rubbish from around one large field of tents. A guy called Ali from Afghanistan went round with Lucy and me, holding the bags open and chatting. He'd been in England a few years ago, and wanted to get back there. He asked if he could go back with us! It seems that everyone in the camp wants desperately to get to England, and many try each night to illegally get there.
The state of the camp was pretty bad. There are a couple of main 'streets' with mud roads and wooden shacks lining them. There are shops and restaurants, areas with taps and loads of people hanging around (the vast majority were youngish looking men). Beyond the few streets are just bumpy, muddy fields of tents and shelters. There was rubbish everywhere, and it was sad to see spoiled food, and thrown away clothing, shoes, blankets etc - useless because they were wet.
We entered under the bridge in this picture (from the internet) below.
We couldn't take many pictures in the camp, for fear of having phones/cameras stolen. I didn't take any - the three below are from the internet, and are typical of what we saw. The rest of the photos are quick snaps taken by friends.
Some of the rubbish we collected.
Graffiti on the bridge as we left the camp, including a Banksy painting of Steve Jobs (who was son of a Syrian migrant).
Our car (plus Heather, minus Oli) outside the camp after rubbish collecting.
One of the men from the camp came up to us and wanted his photo take with us too.
Back at the warehouse, we all gathered together along with the other volunteers, and shared a few thoughts and a prayer. There was a very strong spirit there, and there were quite a few wet eyes among us.
We then had to meet up at our Ibis hotel, and get rooms sorted out before getting food. Our car once again took the 'scenic' route!
We all hung around in the hotel foyer, while rooms were checked into. The entire place seemed to be full of English Mormons and French Police!
I was sharing a room with Lucy, though we said Heather Robinson could share with us. She had only been coming down for the day with her parents, but wanted to stay longer. In the end though I had the room to myself (the top bunk!) as Lucy and Heather dragged their double mattress across the corridor and put it on the floor in Jordan and Emma's room! I'm not convinced they got much sleep that night!
Once we were sorted, we all met up in the foyer again to sort out about an evening meal. The other Care4Calais volunteers had invited us to join them at an Indian Restaurant. Sam Hartley (a doctor from church who was helping in the camp 'clinic' along with a couple of nurses from church) texted me the details, which we put in the satnav and set off, followed by Jody Ryan and Alan Fox.
For some reason though, we ended up nowhere near the same restaurant as everyone else, so gave up and found our own restaurant - a Chinese eat-all-you-want place. Alan and Jan Malachowski decided to go and eat on their own, so Jody's car (with a couple of other women and YSA) and our car ate there.
It was great! All the youngsters sat on one table, and us oldies sat on another and had some really good conversation.
After that, Alan and Jan went off, and we drove back to the hotel so the other ladies from Jody's car could be dropped off. The rest of us wanted to go to the beach, but weren't sure how to get there. Andy went and asked at the hotel reception, and a lovely lady there drew us a very detailed map! We followed it and parked in a big car park next to the beach.
I said we had to go paddling, so we made our way in the pitch black over quite a lot of sand before reaching the sea. The water was rather cold!
Group foot selfie!
Then we went for a walk along the pier, where there were quite a few night fishermen. We tried out our French on them, which I don't think was very effective! They were friendly though, and showed us their fish and bait.
Back at the hotel, the younger ones all hung out in the girls' room for a while, and the boys stuck to the curfew I gave them, though I had to tell them to keep the noise down a couple of times.
I had a really good sleep in my top bunk! Andy and another guy were in the room next door, and Andy didn't have quite as good a night due to the snoring of his room mate!
On Saturday 9th, we had breakfast at the hotel, and then headed back to the warehouse.
I spent a while doing similar to the day before - filling plastic bags with a set amount of clothing and toiletries. We put together enormous white sacks full of these kits, ready for handing out in the camp later that day. I did a few other odd jobs too, moving boxes between the warehouses on a pallet trolley.
Lucy and the younger ones carried on sorting out T-shirts by size. Another car load of people came on the Saturday, including Ben Hirst, who had been worried about Lucy coming to the camp.
After a while, those of us who hadn't gone into the camp to distribute goods the day before, had the opportunity to go.
We split into three groups, and were given some training in the yard, as to how to distribute the goods, which included practicing making lines either side of the back of the van, so that the bags could be given out to a single file line.
We drove in cars to a different entrance to the camp, which had quite a few Police vans there. The Police apparently are not too keen on volunteers going in the camp, because it sometimes causes disruption. It felt a little tense as we approached the camp.
My group walked through the camp, following the van of bags we'd distribute. The woman who was in charge was in my group - she was a small, fiesty woman who you couldn't imagine taking any rubbish from anyone! We got on quite well, and she'd asked me to do a few specific tasks earlier on in the warehouse. She assigned me to hand the bags over to each refugee.
I walked along chatting with an Irish guy - a friend of President Hirst who was also in my group. He was a body guard, who had guarded some high profile people in his time, so I felt reasonably safe walking with him!
Once in place, Dan Kitsell went in the back of the van and got the right sized bag ready (based on clothing size, and judged by looking at the size of the person at the head of the queue) which he'd pass to me and I'd give to the person. Most of the people were men in their 20's and 30's, but there were a couple of women and younger boys. Some of the people in the queue I recognised as having been in the queue and received bags already, but we were told not to deny them, or cause any kind of conflict. As I handed the bags over, some people were grateful and expressed thanks, some people just seemed blank and dead inside, and others scared me - their expressions seemed sharp and shrewd and dangerous. A couple of times the bag I was holding got snatched, by people reaching under the van doors.
It didn't take all that long before the three white sacks in our van were distributed, and we were walking back out through the camp. The Afghan man, Ali, who I'd met the day before came up and walked back through the camp with me and the woman in charge.
Back in our cars (after the usual kerfuffle of me trying to get my car keys out of my body belt, from under various layers of clothing!) we drove a little way to meet up with everyone else, so we could drive back in convoy to the warehouse. We were hanging about for ages though, so Andy and I decided to make our own way back, and drove off. Back at the warehouse though, the woman in charge was jokingly mad with me for going off, shaking her fist at me! I think Andy and I felt a bit frustrated at times that we'd come all this way to work, but we seemed to spend quite a bit of time just hanging around.
We had packed lunch in the yard, then did a bit more in the warehouse, before saying fond farewells to some of the other volunteers we'd got to know.
We drove back to the Eurotunnel and got on our evening train without a hitch.
All the kids came and sat in my car, and Andy and I went and sat in Jody Ryan's car, along with Margit Izzard, a German women we'd got to know at the meal the night before.
Andy and I talked in the front all the way back, and the kids fell asleep. We dropped the Collingses and Emma off home, before heading to our's, and filling Scott in on our adventures.
The trip was kind of how I'd imagined - we experienced some grim reality, and were able to help to a very small extent those in need. What also felt of value though were the conversations I'd been able to have with other volunteers about God and our religion.
There seems to be no easy solution to the problem of the Jungle and other such camps - even if we let everyone in them into the UK, the camps would refill overnight. The migrants/refugees could claim asylum in France if they wanted to, and not have to live in camps, but they are holding out for the UK.
The weather was really pleasant while we were in Calais, but in the days and weeks following, as it got more bitter and wet, I frequently thought about the people in the camp, and how utterly miserable it must be for them - regardless of whether they put themselves there or not. I felt very very grateful for the comforts of home which I enjoy, and would definitely take part in future projects planned to help.