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About A Week: Volunteering For Britain

Peter Hinchliffe is glad to be living in a land where volunteering is a way of life.

The University of the Third Age. Sounds rather grand, don’t you think?

In my local U3A branch anyone over 50 can “study’’ line dancing, salsa and swing, aromatherapy. There are classes in bridge and chess, scrabble and mahjong.

Languages? French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish are on offer. There are history and literature classes, along with handicrafts, computer studies and music.

If being cooped up in a classroom isn’t your thing, there’s bowls and croquet, seven hiking groups and cycling for softies.

Huddersfield U3A has 2,400 members and organises 106 study groups and activities.

This mighty enterprise is run by volunteers. An office, provided rent free by the local council, is manned daily - by voluntary workers. No one receives so much as £1 in wages.

I first heard about the University of the Third Age in 1984. I was then news editing Huddersfield’s daily newspaper, The Examiner. A lady came striding purposefully into the office: Edith Bentley, her name.

For 20 minutes I listened to Edith’s plans. She wanted to use local sports centres as regular meeting places for older folk. She also wanted to establish a U3A branch which would organise study groups and social activities.

“Do you think there’s a future for these ideas?’’ Edith asked.

“Definitely,’’ said I. “Exactly what this town needs.’’

I suggested that Edith should seek an interview with a local council official. Arrange for the use of a hall. Call a public meeting.

She marched purposefully out of the newspaper office, a couple of hundred yards up the road, saw a sign on the wall of a building announcing Leisure Services - and within five minutes she was outlining her plans to a senior local government official.

No stopping our Edith!

She was 69 when we first met. A retired midwife, and trainer of midwives. She and her husband had spent scores of happy retirement days hiking in the spectacular hill country of Northern Britain.

But her husband had become ill. Seriously ill. No more walking for him. Edith, while visiting friends in Kent, had seen a picture in a local paper of a group of older people, all of them smiling and looking remarkably happy. They were French men and women, members of a University of the Third Age group.

Edith did some digging. Found out what U3A was all about, then decided that Huddersfield, the town in which she lived, should have such a group.

Her husband, now housebound, could occupy his considerable brain power in helping her to found a U3A branch.

Long after her husband had died Edith remained deeply involved in U3A work. Her organisational ability and driving ambition turned Huddersfield into one of the biggest U3A branches in Britain.

Edith was eventually honoured by the Queen and awarded an honorary degree by Huddersfield University. The lives of thousands of people have been brightened and given added purpose by the pioneering work of this remarkable woman.

I’ve been a U3A volunteer for ten years. I run a writing and reminiscing class called Remember When. My wife, Joyce, is also a U3A tutor, running two Spanish classes.

We both also go every week into a local primary school, to play a small part in helping seven-year-olds to master spelling. (Only when you sit down with a child of that age do you realise the illogical nature of English spelling. Why is the branch of a tree spelt bough and the barking of a dog spelt bow-wow?). I also am a news reader for the Kirklees Recorder, a fortnightly “talking’’ newspaper for the blind.

By the way, almost every member of my U3A group does some kind of voluntary work.

Volunteering is fun. A daily walk keeps your body fit, but it’s doing voluntary work that keeps the mind healthy.

And volunteering is second nature to the British. A Sunday newspaper announced last weekend that an astonishing 26 million people - almost half of Britain’s population - participate in some form of voluntary work. And 11 million of these work in formal schemes.

Yes, I’m proud to be British.

Proud not because we had a mighty Empire, or that we gave the world its most useful language.

Proud not because we designed the world’s first computer and the Internet.

Proud not because we make the world’s finest aero engines.

I am proud to be British because we are nation of volunteers.


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