Of all the weeks on the Nicest Job journey, this week by far is the most special to me personally. If I may, jump back 18 years to my 8th Birthday. I'm a Christmas baby (I was meant to be born on Christmas day) but was just one week premature. It was around this time that I was a pretty poorly little lad. I had a consistent and deep cough and shortness of breath going on almost 12 weeks. To be perfectly honest I had never been the most 'well' of kids but as my mother tells me, this period was pretty bad.
Quite luckily my aunt worked at my local hospital at the time in the x-ray department. So she managed to squeeze us in, after being told by the doctor 'it was just the time of year, it'll pass'. Well, what followed could only be described as one of the luckiest moments of my life. See, the x-ray picked up that the right side of my heart was 4 times the size of the left counterpart. I had a major hole between he two ventricles on my heart chamber, which until now had gone un-noticed. I was immediately rushed into Bristol children's hospital for pioneering open-heart surgery and I guess the rest is history. I survived, obviously as I am now writing this, but, if it wasn't for that fateful day, I wouldn't be.
However terrible, shocking, upsetting or inspiring my story may be none of it, and I really do mean none of it would be without the incredible British Heart Foundation. Now, I would like to set the record straight. Most of you reading this will probably think that the BHF (British Heart Foundation) raise their money to pay for research into heart disease. Correct. But what you probably don't know if that they also pay for almost all major heart surgery in the UK. The fund the surgeons, the cardiac nurses and all specialist heart equipment in all hospitals in this country. Not, the NHS. My surgery cost £55,000, all paid for in full by the BHF. So when I say I owe them my life, I really do. So as you can see, this week really was special for me. I could have been scrubbing toilets for them for all I cared, I was giving back to the charity that gave me a second chance at life, one I have always vowed to live to its fullest.
Due to my level of retail experience, BHF head office requested I visit a range of their stores across Gloucestershire (my home town) to lend my help. Being such a large organisation and being one of the top charity retailers on the high street, they felt this would be the perfect fit, and it was.
I started my week in Cheltenham, most of you will know it for the gold cup and racecourse, but it is a wonderful place. What interested me most is that the BHF has wised up in the charity game and started opening specific retail outlets. The one I visited on Monday was a Books and Music store. As the name suggests they only sell books and music, something which does incredibly well. I was introduced to Kevin the Area manager upon arrival and the lovely store manager Rob and after a few introductions I was taken through the training and retail guide. Of all the charities I have visited, this one is the only one to have it nailed. Sure, I appreciate they are a large national charity with a large pool of resources, but they were incredibly professional in their approach. Training manuals and leaflets, manual handling guides and check sheets galore. Insuring every single volunteer is trained as well as a member of staff before being let loose. Once I had got this bit of training ticked off, I was ready to work.
I don't think I've ever seen so many books in one small space. The donations and quality of donations were incredible. From wonderful collectors editions and signed copies to brand new books still on the top sellers list at Waterstones; there was plenty of money still left in the bags upon bags of books. I ended up working with two wonderful women, Beryll and Gill who were at retirement age sorting through the bags of donations and cleaning them up ready to go on the shelves downstairs. Bless them, they were a hoot and after living a full and prosperous life they wanted to spend some of their retirement out and about volunteering at the Heart Foundation, where their time is more than needed. The day pretty much flew by and I headed home, ready for my next day in Chippenham.
Bright and early Tuesday morning I headed over to Chippenham to meet toe store manager and a guy called Mike, who was taking me out and about doing home collections. This is a free service offered by the BHF where volunteer drivers travel around locally picking up donations from peoples homes, so they don't have to worry about taking them into the store themselves. Mike's a great guy and as he told me within 5 minutes of getting in the car, "Hi, I'm Michael Jackson, the original Michael Jackson." Haha, he did make me chuckle. It was a pretty intense day if I am honest. When people ring up and tell the store that they need a 'couple of bags' collecting they take that estimate with a pinch of salt, something I came to understand. We went to one ladies house who has estimated 3-5 bags needed collecting. Well, I don't know where she learnt to count but I counted 15 in total! Not that we were complaining because a vast majority of the items donated were top quality, just meant we had to do a few more car runs to get it all in.
Something I have come to learn and also continue to be amazed by is people generosity. Regardless of what we are pushed down our throats with the media we do live in a wonderful world and there are plenty of wonderfully kind and generous people out there, silently working behind the scenes of our society. I saw that this week. Without donations and volunteers, these shops just would not function. The 'standard' BHF store I was at on Tuesday is a shining example of that. With over 30 volunteers and more donations than they can cope with last year alone they managed to give £72,000 profit straight to the Heart Foundation. That probably saved 2 peoples lives with major heart surgery. Incredible.
Wednesday and Thursday was split between Swindon and Gloucester where I visited both a regular store and a Home and Electrical store (the shining beacon's of BHF's retail offer). The Home and Electrical store in Gloucester is one of the biggest in the country bosting almost 6,000sq ft of retail space and boy do they take some cash. Last year they took just over £400,000 in that store alone with £120,000 profit going to the BHF. It really does show that a viable and well-executed retail offer can give strength and stability to a charity.
What also I didn't expect was to understand more about retail volunteers and more importantly why they do what they do. The heart foundation is a prominent figure on the majority of our high streets and not everyone has a personal affiliation to the charity. They are however a haven for people trying to get work. Now I don't want to go all Katie Hopkins on you but there are a lot of people in the UK who are unemployed. Those who are motivated enough go and volunteer. They don't take no from the countless employers who have turned them down and instead of wasting their time they head over to the BHF and give their time to helping the charity. In return they get a reference and a sense of achievement helping them get back on that employment ladder. I saw countless volunteers this week who are doing just that. As a result, the manager, Hazel, told me that she has a high turn over of volunteers because a lot of them manage to get jobs because of the fact they have dedicated their time to helping, turning up on time and making a real difference. A double-edged sword for Hazel, but exactly the point of what this charity does and many others.
I rounded my week off by chatting to the wonderful Steve Kitchen at BBC Radio Gloucestershire about my time with the British Heart Foundation and my surgery as part of this wonderful year.
I always talk about the big difference between the small charities and the large dominant figures in our society. The British Heart Foundation is one of the big boys, that is obvious. But what they do is vital and I more than most should know. Do they raise millions upon millions of pounds a year? Yes. But does that make them any less deserving of our money? No. Our hearts keep us alive, they keep us ticking. Heaven forbid nothing goes wrong with yours but if it does, the BHF will be waiting patiently to help save your life.