• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

The small things that show the big society is not dead

Yesterday was D day.

The D stands for divorce. The first Monday back to work after New Year is the peak period for shredding the marital contract. Throw in the bucketing rain, the bills, the overdraft and you didn't need the morning headlines to make you feel blue. But should you happen to have listened to them you'd have heard the Big Society is dead.

Is that right? The name might be dead. The political concept might need a decent cremation and no memorial.

David Cameron's political fast footwork (in rebranding the voluntary sector as a Conservative initiative) may have tripped him up. But that's a far cry from saying fundamental goodness and decency is in shorter supply.

What has struck me this grey, sodden January is the exact opposite. I've had a look at the smaller stories in the newspapers and am both impressed and humbled by what I've read.

I usually turn the page when I see Coleen Rooney's picture. I thought there was nothing I didn't know about this WAG-in-chief and her family. I was wrong. Coleen's 14-year-old sister Rosie died at the weekend and she is heartbroken. The teenager's death is particularly poignant because Rosie was adopted by Coleen's parents Tony and Colette McLoughlin when she was two. She suffered from a rare and devastating brain disorder called Rett syndrome which left her profoundly disabled.

How impressive that this ordinary family brought her in and gave her a loving home. Twelve years ago they couldn't have known that a future son-in-law would become rich and famous. When he did – and when he married Coleen in a blaze of publicity – she made Rosie her chief bridesmaid. You can't put a label on that level of goodness and generosity of spirit. You can't politicise it – and in my opinion no-one should try to.

The essence of such deeds is that they spring from the individual, from a disinterested desire or impulse to improve the lot of others. And the best news is that there's lots of it about – if you look for it.

Also in yesterday's papers was the story of Diane Moffat. Her nephew, Cameron Sprott from Bonnyrigg, had only 10% kidney function. His mother Elaine tried to donate a kidney to him but it wasn't functioning well enough either. Diane, moved by her sister's distress, has donated one of her own kidneys. She wants no thanks.

"I don't want Cameron or Elaine feeling they owe me something for the rest of their lives," she said. "As far as I'm concerned it's done – finished."

The fact is, she would have found it hard to live with herself if she hadn't helped. So many others are like her. One-third of women and almost as many men in Scotland volunteer to help others. They contribute huge sums to the economy by giving their labour free of charge. Whatever the headlines might say, the big society that matters is not dead. Among a myriad of tasks, they teach adults to read, ferry cancer sufferers to and from chemotherapy, garden for the elderly and befriend children and vulnerable adults. Like Diane Moffat they don't seek thanks or recognition. It makes them uncomfortable.

When the national youth volunteering charity ProjectScotland was setting up, it researched teenage attitudes. When they were asked if volunteers should be paid, they were affronted by the idea. Even though they were hard up, they were clear that money shouldn't be the motivator.

The statistics will tell you that volunteering is the preserve of the middle-aged and middle class. But when ProjectScotland pitched cinema advertising to young people of all backgrounds, they volunteered in droves. Allowing them to retain benefits while volunteering full-time took down another barrier. The desire to help is there in most of us. The under-confident and inexperienced just need a welcome.

Blogger Judith O'Reilly's new book, A Year of Doing Good, follows a resolution she made at the turn of 2012 to do a good deed every day.

She gave a lift 29 times, showed kindness to a stranger 28 times, offered bereavement support 17 times, taught a disabled teenager to write 15 times, picked up litter four times and looked for a dog once.

She also started the Jam Jar Army which encourages people to throw their loose change into a jam jar then donate the contents to charity when it is full. It sounds like small beer until you read that to date it has raised £26,000 for charity.

Her deeds were a far cry from adopting a severely disabled child but like the pennies they mount up. This is probably the level of good most of us could slot easily into a busy life. That said I am frequently surprised to discover just how much some people manage to achieve unobtrusively.

I know three people who man phones at Samaritans and someone who drives aid lorries and goes away for weeks to help in far-flung orphanages. I have acquaintances who read to the elderly or give an afternoon a week to a child who needs a companion. I asked one friend where he and his family would be on Christmas Day. They would, he said, be dishing up lunch to the homeless at a refuge.

There are 45,000 voluntary organisations operating in Scotland but they face troubled times. According to the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, as we enter 2013 smaller charities are spending more than their income and have fewer cash reserves to fall back on. Larger charities are seeing a reduced return on their capital assets.

Meanwhile Leslie Morphy, chief executive of the charity Crisis, says: "The most vulnerable are bearing the brunt of cuts to services and welfare. The housing benefit cuts are driving up homelessness with more cuts on the way."

The landscape looks harsh. There will be no let up on the squeeze. It may become tighter still. More charities may need to amalgamate to survive. But the big society will weather it.

It's an aspect of our community that belongs to no political party. It preceded the boom and will hopefully long outlast the bust.

www.jamjararmy.com

Contextual targeting label: 
Block list

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

134227