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‘Reaching children is our main priority’: Volunteers fight hygiene poverty

The Hygiene Bank’s inspiring volunteers working hard on the frontline to make a difference in their areas

Poverty – and especially the impacts of hygiene poverty – are often misunderstood. Many working people in the UK today are living in poverty. And one of the key objectives of all the staff and volunteers at The Hygiene Bank is tackling those misconceptions.

“There is a view that it’s people’s own fault and they just need to get a job. But the number of people who are in work and still in poverty is huge and that isn’t really recognised,” says Jo Gilbert, who set up The Hygiene Bank Doncaster from her living room two years ago.

Now one of the largest and busiest Hygiene Bank projects in the UK, in 2020 the Doncaster branch distributed 45,835kg of products to 42 community partners, 10 schools and a number of local authority organisations.

They raised more than £32,000 in funding to buy hygiene essentials and pay for storage, and at the end of the year they secured a £60,000 grant from Doncaster City Council and the DWP to support their Covid response work in 2021.

“Between January and March 2021 our products got to 5,700 adults and 4,900 children – which is crazy for a project that is entirely staffed by volunteers. It’s grown much bigger than we anticipated,” admits Gilbert.

“When I started this I was aware of nine food banks in Doncaster, now we are supporting 22. A lot of people were really struggling to make ends meet even before Covid hit; the pandemic has tipped them over the edge. It’s been devastating,” she says.

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Gilbert first heard about hygiene poverty when her employer supported The Hygiene Bank’s 2018 Christmas appeal.

“It really resonated with me,” she says. “It seemed a real unfairness that people should have so little that they have to forego basic hygiene essentials and cleaning products for their home.”

Gilbert, 46, got in touch with The Hygiene Bank founder Lizzy Hall, who gave advice on where to begin. Within a few months Gilbert had enlisted the help of Serena van der Meulen, and together the pair – both of whom also work full time – run the project, assisted by nine other volunteers.

Raising awareness of hygiene poverty and having conversations about it in new and different places is key to helping people understand poverty and inspiring them to take action to help, says Gilbert.

“You see it in their eyes, it’s like a penny drops. They suddenly realise that if people are struggling to find money to feed themselves for a week, then of course buying things like deodorant, toothpaste and washing powder is going to be a real struggle.

“It’s trying to help people understand that you might have two parents working, but housing is expensive and children need food and clothes; then there’s precarious work and zero-hour contracts, and job losses and increased utility bills because of Covid… so many things can lead to a person finding themselves in poverty.”

The impact the products have on recipients is two-fold. As well as the obvious practical help that donations provide, they are also serving to improve relationships within communities.

Gilbert explains: “Schools and council services have told us that, by being able to offer these products, it’s helping to build trust and a bond between the community and the school. It’s helping them to access those hard-to-reach families who don’t want to get involved with any agencies.

“That is one of the most surprising positive outcomes, that people are seeing the services and schools as a place of support rather than anything other than that, which is amazing.”

Each branch works at grassroots level, set up and run by local volunteers (you can find out how to volunteer or set up a branch here) – with all donations to that branch being distributed back into their community. Branches also benefit from donations made by brands and businesses through partnerships with the charity’s head office.

I absolutely love what I do and I’m so fortunate to do it because we know that we make a differenceKaty McCarthy, Hygiene Bank volunteer

Katy McCarthy, Hygiene Bank volunteer

Katy McCarthy helps co-ordinate two projects, one in Harpenden and St Albans, and another in Luton – one of the most deprived areas of the country.

For McCarthy, herself a mum, it’s seeing the impact hygiene poverty has on children and young people that drives her to keep pushing against the tide of deprivation.

“The numbers are just horrific. About 46 per cent of children living in Luton live below the poverty line. In some areas that figure is 65 per cent. It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” she says.

Child poverty is a massive issue, it can lead to them not going to school, if they don’t go to school then they don’t get an education, then can’t get a job and it’s an ongoing cycle.

“Reaching children is our main priority, trying to help those who have no way of helping themselves.”

Despite the challenges, McCarthy, 37, feels encouraged by the overwhelming support they’ve received since the start of the pandemic.

“The generosity of our local community has massively increased in the last 16 months,” she says. “Our drop-off boxes are fuller than they’ve ever been and donations via our For Common Good wishlist and our JustGiving page have all increased. We can’t keep up with demand, but we are trying very hard.”

McCarthy says the sacrifices involved are worth it: “I started doing this two years ago when someone in my local area posted online saying they were looking for someone to pick up donations from a box in a local church and bring them to her.

“I thought it would be 20 minutes once every two weeks but it’s escalated from there!” she laughs. “But I absolutely love what I do and I’m so fortunate to do it because we know that we make a difference, and the difference we make is amazing.”

Carmelle Harold works with Changing Lives, a UK-wide charity that works with people experiencing issues including homelessness, addiction, domestic violence and long-term unemployment. It is one of The Hygiene Bank’s 2,000-plus registered community partners (find out more about becoming a community partner to distribute The Hygiene Bank’s products here).

She says: “Having the support of The Hygiene Bank is amazing, especially during Covid and the lockdowns. We’ve been able to help 60 new women, people who have been furloughed, lost their jobs, or are struggling in different circumstances, people who’ve suffered trauma.

“Being able to provide them with these essentials is really nice, for them to know people care. They wouldn’t be able to have a lot of this stuff otherwise.”

The passion and dedication of The Hygiene Bank’s volunteers is inspiring and energising. By rolling up their sleeves and taking action within communities at grassroots level, the fight against hygiene poverty has become a movement with real impact. And by encouraging all of us to take action by donating, volunteering or helping raise awareness about hygiene poverty in social media, we can all do our bit.

Saluting The Hygiene Bank’s army of volunteers, founder Lizzy Hall is humbled by what they achieve: “We are constantly in awe of the unbridled enthusiasm and generosity we witness day in and out from our volunteers. The charity is powered by our volunteers. Without them our work would simply not be possible.”

Find out how to volunteer or set up a branch at thehygienebank.com and how you can donate products to your local branch here: thehygienebank.com/give-products/

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