Despite living 70 miles away from Wimbledon, Craig Wellstead had no hesitation in answering an SOS to help vulnerable people in the community.
Supporters who travel to our away games during the season will know Craig as a regular on trips around the country, but he’s been clocking up the miles for an entirely different reason at a time when the country is in crisis.
Craig is President of Old Rutlishians’ Association with its base in Poplar Road, Merton Park, used as a vital community hub for our Dons Local Action Group. Craig is therefore an important cog in the wheel of a well-oiled machine that has delivered over 5,000 weekly food packs to those in need. Dedicated volunteers are leading the battle against Coronavirus by delivering food boxes to those struggling in the community and Craig is playing a valuable role.
With his daily shift starting at 8.00 am every day, Craig therefore drives up from Bexhill in East Sussex and stays up here to make sure that a significant part of the operation runs smoothly.
In the latest of our series on volunteers in the Dons Local Action Group, we feature the tireless work carried out by Craig, who is pictured above with his daughter Emily.
How did you get involved in all of this?
“Xavier called me up and said ‘we’ve started talking about organising a hub and maybe it could be at the Old Ruts?’ I said ‘I will put it to our Exec and I’m sure it will be fine’. On the following Saturday after lockdown started it was just donations, but on the Tuesday after I sent an e-mail to 2,000 members who all lived locally, requesting that they bring food down because we would be starting a food hub. Straight away, we had managed to contact 2,000 people who live nearby. Wimbledon supporters are scattered everywhere, but every member from Old Ruts lived within a mile or two miles. On that first Saturday we had a great response with loads of food delivered to us.”
What are the main jobs that you have been doing?
“I have been in charge of the food distribution at the Old Rutlishians club in Poplar Road. We have staff members and a few other people helping us on a rota system. We get the food in after people have sourced it at the supermarkets and we get them into stacks to box them off, ready for deliveries. The deliveries go out every day, but mainly on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
“I make sure that things are done properly and there’s no messing around because it’s a proper job. Most of the volunteers have been very good and put in the graft because they want to do it for the right reasons. We do shifts from 8.00 am until 2.00 pm, 2.00 pm until 6.00 pm, and 6.00 pm until 9.00 pm. With the latter shift, there are no deliveries coming in, so it’s nice and peaceful! From first thing in the morning until 10.30 am, you can quietly meander along doing your bits and pieces without loads of hassle, except on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, when we are getting deliveries out from 8.40 am.”
What time do you start volunteering every day?
“As I live in Bexhill, I come up on a Wednesday night, stay here, and drive back on a Sunday evening. I get in here every day at 8.00 am, sit down, and make sure everything is sorted out, and then start to load the boxes for deliveries. People come in from around 9.00 am onwards and we get boxes ready all the time. If we have any emergency ones, we pack those first so that they are ready to go, and we sort out a driver. I answer phone calls and liaise with people. Last week we had 1,100 Easter Eggs being delivered. As soon as they arrived, 200 were sent off to the Children’s Trust in Tadworth, 200 or 300 were scattered around schools, and the rest went to hospitals. As soon as people tell me they have stuff, I say ‘yes’ and then I organise for people to drop them off at certain places.”
What are the key challenges for you?
“There are not too many things that are difficult because of the people involved. Shirley (Kennett) is fantastic in the help she provides and everything works here because people do their individual jobs so well. The people helping out at the supermarkets get the stuff, we come and get the items, and if we do our jobs properly people in the community don’t get forgotten. Everyone involved is treating it like a job. I say to people, ‘imagine this food parcel is for your Mum, Dad, Nan or Grandad, so don’t forget anything’. It’s not a joke. At the end of the day, this is serious. It’s nice to come down here, but we are here for a purpose. People are not here to miss putting some pasta into a food parcel. If items get forgotten for a parcel, that’s someone’s food gone for the week."
What are the main reasons why you decided to get involved?
“I’m a Wimbledon supporter and I go to all the away games, but I don’t go to many home matches. Xavier contacted me and as I’m President of Old Ruts I know the area - we have a fantastic club. This club is full of community spirit, just like AFC Wimbledon. This is my last year as President and it just finishes it off on a real high.
“It doesn’t matter what football team you support, but for Wimbledon as a club people in the community will remember how much of a difference this made at a difficult time. Wimbledon are back. This shows we are a community club. What we are doing is unbelievable."
There’s been a real mix of people of all ages and backgrounds helping out, and quite a few sports personalities?
“We’ve got sports professionals helping us out most days, including Surrey cricketer Ryan Patel. Professional rugby players Caolan Englefield and former England player Nick Easter have also been contributing. Former snooker player Tony Meo does deliveries every Saturday, Simon Bassey is here about four days a week, and Peter Fear did a delivery last week. Jimmy Dack (former Newport County Manager) was here for four hours one day. Every Friday, Nathaniel Wood, the UFC fighter, helps out. It’s fantastic to see so many sporting personalities helping out and we are trying to get Jimmy White down here. We want to get a picture of Jimmy and Tony Meo with snooker cues in their hands and loading food parcels into their cars!”
What feedback have you had from the community about this project?
“It’s good for the clubs and organisations, but also for everybody involved in the community. In years to come, I think this community effort will be remembered in history. Until the bar opens again at Old Ruts, we will be here doing this, but we know that people will be going back to work at some point, so we are already trying to work out plans for when that happens. I know everybody at Old Ruts and we know we what they do for a job, so we know who is still going to be able to help us. Further down the line, it may be harder to get volunteers, but that will not be the case here.
Do you think this community effort will leave a real legacy, even after the Coronaviris crisis is over?
“The foodbanks have got to learn from this and I think you will get a lot more people helping out, once we get through the crisis. They will have had that experience of helping out at this time. When things get back to normal, I’m pretty sure that if you left the tables outside supermarkets and got volunteers to help out, the foodbanks would be fine. I think the supermarkets would be okay with it because this crisis has shown that there are loads of people that need help. We didn’t realise how many people needed help. It has opened people’s eyes that some in the community just don’t have any money. A homeless person walked into here because he had heard what we were doing and we found him accommodation on the same day. We spoke to someone at the council and he was sorted out with somewhere to stay.”
What would your advice be to anyone thinking of getting involved as a volunteer?
“If people want to get involved then they shouldn’t hesitate to contact us. We are going to need more volunteers soon because people are going to start going back to work. People could start to forget about it as things progress to getting back to normal, so we will need more help to keep it going. This has been a great project to be involved with.”
To volunteer for the Dons Local Action Group, contact 020 3301 4511 (9am-6pm), or you can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . The Dons Local Action Group has recently combined with the AFC Wimbledon Foundation to provide computers for children who don’t have any basic means of communication. If you can help, visit www.keepkidsconnected.co.uk .
Keep an eye on the official website later this week for another feature on a volunteer involved in the Dons Local Action Group.