Post Fifteen. Employed To Unemployed.

This week has seen a huge change in my life, it’s been brewing since early December but on Wednesday 7th June it became official. It was my last day of employment with Cyrenians, an Edinburgh based charity.

For nearly 50 years, Cyrenians has served those on the edge, working with the homeless and vulnerable to transform their lives by beginning with their story, helping them believe that they can change their lives, and walking with them as they lead their own transformation.

Our Vision is an inclusive society in which we all have the opportunities to live valued and fulfilled lives. We work to make that vision a reality by our Mission to support people excluded from family, home, work or community on their life journey.

Our way of work is built on our four core values:

Compassion: We believe that everyone should have the chance to change, no matter how long that might take.
Respect: We believe in tolerance, acceptance, valuing diversity and treating each other as equals.
Integrity: We are committed to the highest quality of work, grounded in honesty, generosity, sincerity and professionalism.
Innovation: We are willing to take risks, challenge convention and be very creative in our search for new ways of working, in particular by taking account of the environmental impact of our decisions.

I’ve worked for Cyrenians since July 2012 in the Community and Food branch of the charity. We ran the FareShare Franchise for Central and South East Scotland. FareShare is a national UK charity who redistribute surplus food from producers and suppliers to not-for-profit organisations that work with vulnerable people, such as homeless hostels, soup kitchens, community groups and childrens breakfast clubs. We, with our army of volunteers, got the food to those who need it the most, while helping to avoid excessive food waste.

It was a privilege to work for Cyrenians, yes it could be stressful, yes it could be physically and emotionally challenging (I have cried in the walk-in freezer on more than one occasion), but taking a job there was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I have met some wonderful people. The volunteers I worked with, even though I haven’t seen them for over two years, they still inspire me. I mean, sometimes I struggled with the 7am starts. I’d walk to work in the dark on a rainy winter’s morning to arrive at the depot (that was usually colder inside than outside) to be met by smiling volunteers, ready to start their busy shift of putting the food orders together. All the volunteers, in all of their roles, with their dedication, willingness and hard work are really what made this job for me. Of course distributing seven tonnes of food per week and feeding thousands of people was good too, as was driving the forklift!

My forklift qualification wasn’t the only slightly bizarre but memorable aspect of this job. I once spent an afternoon stacking over 3000 haggis (haggi?) in our freezer. The tens of thousands of Snickers bars that we received because they were put in the wrong wrappers. I’ve seen ‘behind the scenes’ of many supermarkets and their distribution warehouses, yes I find this fascinating, really! I’ve got an Intermediate Food Hygiene (with credit!) qualification from The Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland that I wonder if I’ll ever have a use for again. I was once forced on stage by the Scottish singer/songwriter Dougie MacLean to give a speech about Cyrenians in front of a couple of hundred people. I’ve helped a poor delivery driver clean the back of his van when a yoghurt delivery went wrong and two pallets of yoghurts basically exploded in his van. Then there was the simple pleasure of working away at the computer to have a volunteer appear with a cup of tea that they’d made for me, I swear many of them could read my mind. There were a lot of sombre moments too of course, and I have many memories of a more saddening nature. But I feel pleased, and fortunate, that I was in a position to help and support people, when help and support was needed. I’m incredibly proud of the work that Cyrenians do, and am so proud to have worked there for the time that I did.

I have been off work sick since December 2014, and I have been in the fortunate situation in which my employer was keeping my job for me. This couldn’t last forever though, and as devastated as I was when I was told in December that I may soon have my contract terminated on the grounds of ill-health, I understand why. I admit to having had some less than kind thoughts about Cyrenians in the last few months, I suppose it’s been part of my process, in which I have come to terms with my unemployment. I haven’t left Cyrenians in ‘disgrace’ and it has nothing to do with my performance or ability to do my job, but it took me a while to accept this particular ‘life event’.

Despite the stressy bits, I really loved my job. It took me until I was thirty two years old but I found what I felt was the perfect vocation for me, and I had honestly envisioned myself quite possibly working for Cyrenians for the rest of my life. Not necessarily in the same service, but I admire the Cyrenains values, I share those values and I’ve never had a better employer, or felt more proud about the work that I was doing. My future is pretty uncertain now (oh dear, the song ‘Beauty School Drop Out’ from Grease is now going round my head! “Your future’s so unclear now, what’s left of your career now…”). Sorry, anyway, I don’t know if I will ever be well enough to work again. I hope I will be, but I have no idea what that work will be. I could go back to Cyrenians, I know I’ll be welcome should a suitable job arise, or maybe I’m destined (I don’t believe in destiny or fate, but I can’t think of a better word) to continue my work to raise awareness and campaign for people with ME.

It wasn’t until I got ‘the news’ in December that I really realised how much of my self-worth is tied up in my employment. My initial feelings when I heard the news was that I had lost my value, that I had been stripped of my identity and my feelings of self-worth went down the toilet. I had already not been working for over two years. I was technically employed but on long term sick leave, now I’m properly unemployed, my day-to-day life hasn’t changed. So why all these feelings?! Maybe it’s just reaffirmed the things that I miss the most, the most precious things that I have lost due to my illness; my ability to work, my ability to earn my own living, my ability to live independently, my ability to contribute and my freedom to live my life in the way I choose. Something else that’s been nagging away at me is that unemployment in general, is not looked kindly upon by society. I’ve heard friends, politicians and acquaintances in the past deride unemployed people, I’ve heard them make unfair generalised comments about benefits claimants. Now that I’m one of them, what do those people think about me?

Anyway, I can see this post steering away from the point and developing into a rant about the Tories, so I’ll end this here. (FYI That Tory rant will appear in a future post about my experience so far as a benefits claimant.)

I’m so pleased that I had the opportunity to work for Cyrenians and I’m forever grateful to my three previous colleagues, who were on my interview panel and who gave me a chance. I worked with some amazing people, not just in my service but all over the organisation, I made lovely friends and I learned so so much. I’ll miss the freezing cold depot, I already miss it, but I know they’ll continue doing the fantastic work that they do, for as long as they need to do it.

PS If you like the sound of Cyrenians and the work they do then I’d recommend you follow the CEO, Ewan Aitken’s blog. You may also like to browse the Cyrenians and FareShare websites.

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