Gallery: Helping when all hell breaks loose

Woodbridge Red Cross celebrates 100 years of volunteering in 2009.

Steven Russell

Woodbridge Red Cross celebrates 100 years of volunteering in 2009. Steven Russell delves into its history: from horse-and-wagon ambulances to helping in the aftermath of the London terrorism attacks

THE Red Cross movement and its instantly-recognisable logo are rarely out of the news . . . sadly. Whether it's evacuating 100 patients from a vulnerable hospital in Gaza, helping families left homeless after the Australian bushfires or combating acute childhood malnutrition in Ethiopia, workers are there for those in crisis. Of course, life-or-death calamities hog the headlines. Beneath that, working away quietly and purposefully in communities across Britain, are teams of volunteers helping to make people's lives more comfortable in their hour of need.

The Woodbridge group is part of the global Red Cross family, and this year marks its centenary.

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The first groups in Suffolk - known as Woodbridge Suffolk 1 (Men's) and Suffolk 2 (Women's) Voluntary Aid Detachments - were formed in November, 1909, by Colonel Ranulphus Carthew. Their mission was to “provide supplementary aid to the Territorial Forces Medical Service in the event of war”. Within two years there were more than 40 trained members - and soon their skills were put to the test, with volunteers caring for hundreds of victims of the First World War in hastily-built hospitals. The first was in Woodbridge Grammar School.

A lot's happened since. The focus is now on public service rather than military, and uniforms, medical techniques and technologies have changed almost beyond recognition. Today, first-aiders can be seen on duty at events such as the Suffolk Show, horse shows at Poplar Park, Hollesley, and at Snape Maltings concert hall. Volunteers and their modern ambulance sometimes bolster the NHS service during particularly busy and difficult times, like icy winters. The vehicle is also used to transfer people between hospitals, nursing homes and their own homes.

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More than 1,100 adults and children were trained in first aid skills by Woodbridge Red Cross last year. The group lets people borrow medical equipment such as wheelchairs and walking-frames on 12-week loans from its purpose-built centre in Theatre Street, which opened in February, 1975.

Since the 1980s there's been a shop in The Thoroughfare to raise money, staffed by volunteers, and for four decades tea and smiles have been dispensed to local blood donors. The centre is also working with a young Ugandan man, in Woodbridge for a year, who is keen to take local ideas and techniques back to Africa.

Volunteers like to be proactive. In the past three years Woodbridge and District Red Cross has raised the money for, organised and “delivered” more than 300 free Save a Life courses for young people. It wants to do more - and it's also working on a “Home from Hospital” scheme to help patients settle back into domestic life after a period of illness.

Woodbridge is operated solely by volunteers. There are no paid staff. Add in everyone - from trained first-aiders to people who collect for an hour during a flag day - and you're talking about nearly 200 folk who give whatever time they can spare, whenever they can. The wonderful thing is, it all helps.

“We rely on many people giving small amounts of time; and that's the way we survive, really. Whatever you can do is very much prized,” says volunteer Dawn Scotcher, who has been part of the Woodbridge Red Cross scene since 1985.

Her grandmother had been involved with Red Cross in the midlands, and Dawn's mother had followed suit in Norfolk. “I think my earliest memory of it was when I was about four and they made me a special pinny because I was too small for the real ones the children were wearing! We had children's groups in those days.”

Charmian Berry has a family link, too, with her mother a former centre officer. Charmian had started work as a home carer and a Red Cross instructor came to teach first aid to new recruits. “Following on from that I got the bug, joined, and that was it.” That was 20-odd years ago. Nowadays she trains others in first aid - “the basics, but it's the basics that will save lives”. These include Guides, Brownies, people working for Duke of Edinburgh awards. She'll often be found running sessions in village halls and suchlike.

Charmian, who works as an assistant manager in a residential home, has also been a volunteer first-aider on the front line. As a confessed “aviation nut”, she cites the big air show that used to be held at Mildenhall as a favourite duty.

“Sometimes it's not that you have to do a lot of first aid on someone; sometimes it's just the TLC - the fact you're there, in uniform, and you may just literally comfort somebody,” she explains. “It's nice going away at the end of the day thinking 'I didn't do a lot, but I made them feel a bit better.'”

Although its main job is supporting the local community, Woodbridge Red Cross isn't insular. It helped with the UK response to the Hungarian refugee crisis of 1957 and local volunteers assisted in the aftermath of the July 7 bombings in London in 2005.

Dawn was one of those manning the family assistance centre set up at The Royal Horticultural Halls & Conference Centre in the Westminster. Alongside British Red Cross volunteers were staff from organisations such as the Samaritans, Victim Support and Cruse Bereavement Care. Callers could also use a quiet room and internet caf�, and have aromatherapy and head and neck massages.

Dawn was there the week after the attacks, and the week after that, too: greeting visitors, offering first aid, helping people get assistance from other organisations.

“We had people walking in who were very traumatised - either relatives or they themselves had been involved in it - and we even had a man who had been injured but never assessed by the medical services. This was several days later. He'd just wandered off in a daze and then had wandered in to us.”

After working at the assistance centre, Dawn spent time manning the emergency phonelines. “I found it quite rewarding. People would phone up in a state of panic and didn't know what to do, and you got a chance to talk them through it. You felt you were doing some good.”

With a nursing background, Dawn was able to call upon the kind of skills she's used during most of her life. Nowadays she trains new nurse advisers for NHS Direct and is also part of a research team looking at early-onset diabetes.

“It wasn't a chore or difficult for me,” she says of her stint in London. “I can be confronted on a daily basis with just about anything, if I'm dealing with NHS Direct patients.”

Meanwhile, today in Woodbridge, things are ticking over nicely. More money would always be welcomed - to fund activities such as Save a Life training - but Dawn's motto is always to look to the future with optimism.

They're seeking volunteers to get the Home from Hospital scheme off the ground. It's already running in some parts of the country, including Great Yarmouth. For a fortnight, volunteers trained in first aid and other skills can help with shopping and so on. “They'll do virtually anything apart from painting the house and washing the car! They'll do the things you'd normally do yourself but are currently a bit difficult to do, like cooking. There would be nothing to stop volunteers driving the person to the doctor's surgery or an optician's appointment; and, while you're out, doing the shopping for the week - wheeling the person round so they can choose, and doing all the carrying.”

It's not just older folk who could benefit. “You come across a number of younger people these days who live on their own and haven't got a support system in place; perhaps because of their career they haven't been able to make many friends locally, and haven't got relatives nearby.”

Supporting people is the raison d'etre, with the centenary celebrations are the icing on the cake.

“I think if organisations such as ours didn't exist - and I include St John and other groups - we would be a very much poorer society. We would lose a huge part of what makes us 'us',” says Dawn. “I like to think the Red Cross has been a small but key piece of the puzzle of life, really, in Woodbridge. That's how I think of it.”

Happy birthday!

Woodbridge Red Cross is marking its centenary year with a host of events. They include:

An historical exhibition in the Shire Hall, Woodbridge, on May 8 - along with coffee and market stalls

The annual Red Cross flag day follows on May 9

Two concerts on June 27 - a lunchtime concert in The Abbey School Hall courtesy of Aldeburgh Music and evening entertainment in the Abbey School Gardens by the Sole Bay Jazz band

A volunteers' reunion in the Red Cross Centre on September 12

During the summer the Red Cross flag will be depicted in the raised flower bed in Elmhurst Park

Autumn will see a tree-planting ceremony to mark the first 100 years

Weblink: or call the centre on 01394 382614 or 07903567012

The Red Cross

It's a volunteer-led humanitarian organisation that helps people in crisis, whoever and wherever they are

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement began in 1863

Swiss businessman Henry Dunant was sickened by the suffering of men left to die - because of lack of care - after the 1859 Battle of Solferino, which was part of the Second Italian War of Independence

He suggested national relief societies be formed

They would be made up of volunteers, trained to give impartial help and relieve suffering during wars

A committee - which later became the International Committee of the Red Cross - was set up in Geneva

Dunant also wanted an international agreement recognising the status of medical services and the wounded on the battlefield

This agreement - the original Geneva Convention - was adopted in 1864

In Britain, the Voluntary Aid Scheme of 1909 saw Voluntary Aid Detachments formed in every county of England

Members would aid the territorial medical forces during wars

Take a bow . . . the Woodbridge Red Cross effort includes:

Joan Watkins, who has been organising teas for blood donors for the past 40 years with her team of 20 ladies. Blood-donor sessions were once staged once a month, but in recent years they've been held at least twice a month at the Community Hall - sometimes more often

She has also been a member of the first aid team, a hospital volunteer, worked in medical loan and ran the Old Folks club for 22 years. In the early days she was also a member of the nursing group and ran the Cadets

“Like so many of our members, they start with one thing and then become involved in several areas. We all tend to pick up and fill in gaps as needed,” says Dawn Scotcher

A Friends Club (previously the Old Folks Club) run by Gaye Bowers and Dorothy Leech has about 50 members

The Red Cross Shop is run by Merriam Keeble and 22 volunteers

Wendy Turnbull organises the medical loan group, which last year lent out just under 500 items

The first aid team is run by Philip Byrne and Anne Keen

The training team is run by Dawn Scotcher

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