Gill Barker is our latest Food Hero. An unstinting volunteer with the Food Partnership for the past 12 months, Gill receives the award for her amazing work helping people gain new skills, new confidence and an improved sense of wellbeing.
Gill (pictured centre, in picture) has supported us across all our work, volunteering with our healthy weight team, community cookery sessions and with our dementia gardening and cookery project. Gill’s volunteering with us is coming to an end as she is moving out of Brighton and whilst we will be so sorry to see her go we are so grateful to have had Gill on board and to have known her for this time. To celebrate Gill in all her Food Hero wonderfulness we wanted to tell a little bit of her story and what led her to us.
It was Gill’s own ill health and resulting lack of confidence that initially brought her to the Food Partnership’s doorstep.
Gill had a business career, a first-class degree in psychology achieved as a mature student and a successful new career as a freelance researcher behind her before illness stopped her in her tracks. A series of operations led to her losing her business and a realisation that she had, somehow, to start anew.
“It wasn’t a great time” she says. “I lost all my confidence.”
Feeling she was not ready to return to the world of work, she enrolled for a Master’s degree in Health Promotion at Brighton University – and she targeted the Food Partnership for her course community placement “because it seemed to me to fit all the things I wanted to do really … I was interested in food, the therapeutic and medicinal power of food I suppose.”
Gill’s placement was on Shape Up, talking to people about their health and weight management goals. However, she continued volunteering long after the official MA placement ended, moving on to work on gardening and cookery projects for people with dementia.
Her initial qualms about working with people with dementia – a result of never having met anyone with the disease – were soon overcome. “I’ve developed the skill of stepping back and looking at a situation and letting people talk. I was very ignorant, and had no idea that people with dementia were out there functioning in the community. I suppose I just thought everyone was in care.
“It’s unbelievable how comfortable I feel now with this project, I love it,” she says.
She’s also particularly enjoyed helping on the Cooking for Confidence courses for people with mental health problems. “It sounds really trite to say that within six weeks this cookery course helps people, but I’ve seen it has a dramatic effect. I’ve been really shocked at how much people develop, not only their cookery skills but also confidence throughout it.”
Learning how to work with vulnerable people so that they do not feel stigmatised is one of the major skills that Gill says she has learned during her time volunteering with the Food Partnership. She would like now to work around food, in a therapeutic and practical way.
“Volunteering has opened up opportunities in terms of what I feel I’m capable of work-wise. It has given me the confidence and experience to be able to manage, organise, and work with groups of people in the kitchen and be aware of how to cope with people in different situations.”
She adds: “I now want to support other people that are down on their luck. It’s a great feeling being useful, it gives you a really good glow and good sense of wellbeing. We all have a social duty to support people when they’re low in life. We’re all going to be there at some point.”
So how is Gill’s own health now? “I’m now flying and I feel great,” she says. “I feel back to normal again. And yes, volunteering with the Food Partnership has fulfilled everything in terms of confidence. It’s helped me get back up there again, but it’s also made me feel more rounded as a person.
“It’s made me understand that I love anything around food. I love growing it and I love cooking it – and that’s where I want to be in my career, in some way or another, but in a therapeutic way.
“Some people are lucky to discover their vocation early in life, others, like me, take a little more time! I feel that I’ve found my ‘groove’, and I’d like to thank BHFP, and all the amazing people I’ve worked with, for supporting me and helping me get there. It’s a wonderful place to work and I am really going to miss it.”
We want to wish Gill every happiness in this next part of her life. We know that whoever works alongside her next will be very lucky indeed to have her on their team.