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Charity appeals for help as jab clinic and Christmas rush bring shoppers flooding back to Bon Accord Centre

Visitors from Aberdeen’s new jab centre combined with increasing Christmas footfall are leaving charity workers in the Bon Accord Centre rushed off their feet.

And Charlie House is now appealing for 100 new volunteers to help “make Christmas happen” by taking on various roles – including at its busy cafe and indoor market inside the mall.

Our report details:

  • The very welcome cash injection the vaccine clinic at the former John Lewis is bringing the shopping centre
  • The reasons why individuals are choosing to help Charlie House
  • What is needed from volunteers, as our reporter dons an apron and works a shift at the charity’s city centre cafe

Charlie House Christmas plea

Volunteers and staff at the ReCharge cafe told us just how important volunteers are in keeping the place afloat.

And how they will be needed more than ever as passing trade grows.

Meanwhile the manager of the Curated Aberdeen market, Darren Lynch, revealed how the Bon Accord Centre is on the rise after a troubling two years.

It took a battering during the pandemic, with Topshop, Dorothy Perkins, Warehouse, River Island, the Disney shop and Laura Ashley all closing.

The most devastating blow came this spring when John Lewis announced it was moving out of the adjoining Norco House.

There was dismay when John Lewis announced it was leaving Aberdeen. Picture by Scott Baxter

‘A real increase’

Shortly after the department store was cleared at the end of summer, the NHS took over to use the city centre site for Covid vaccinations.

Within six weeks of the medical site opening, the Bon Accord Centre is already seeing a significant boost.

Darren told us: “There has been a real increase in footfall, people cut through the centre to reach the vaccination clinic and more and more of them are coming in.

“People are waiting in the market before they go, or stopping by for a look after their appointment.

“It’s the same for the cafe, since folk are coming into town they are making a point of having a bite to eat and a cup of tea.

“We have seen a positive impact already.”

Darren Lynch is delighted by the increased footfall. Picture by Wullie Marr/DCT Media

We visited the cafe on a busy Friday, with plenty of customers popping in for a cup of tea, slice of cake and friendly chat.

Manager Dolina Bell, a retired nurse, started off with Charlie House as a volunteer and says those giving their time freely “make such a difference” to the running of ReCharge.

She said: “We wouldn’t be able to do it without them.”

Respond to the Charlie House Christmas appeal if you think you could lend Nicole Neilson and Dolina Bell a hand. Picture by Wullie Marr/DCT Media

Nicole says bustling role in cafe is ‘ideal’

When Dolina was needing new staff, a friend suggested that their granddaughter Nicole Neilson would be perfect.

Nicole, who is currently finishing her dissertation before leaving university, was made a supervisor soon after starting.

She said: “I was working in Berlin before the pandemic, for start-ups in tech, and then I was in Dundee during lockdown.

“I took this job as an interim position before deciding what is next, and I really enjoy it.

“It’s an ideal space to be in for now.”

Nicole Neilson prices up some snacks as another busy day begins. Picture by Wullie Marr/DCT Media

Charlie House Christmas recruits can help avert ‘chaos’

Nicole tells us that volunteers help provide “on the ground customer service” in the eatery.

She added: “It not only gives us that nicer atmosphere, but it can be make or break at times.

“It’s so helpful having volunteers who get stuck in, and we will need that extra help over Christmas.

“We recently had one of our busiest days, when we took in more than £500, and if we didn’t have a volunteer here for extra support then it would have been chaotic.

“Without them, this place would not function.”

Hear from volunteers backing Charlie House Christmas drive

When Lynne Nicol retired in 2019 she was keen to find something else to do to fill her time.

A natural people person, she started offering her time for Charlie House last year – even becoming an elf to help out last Christmas.

The former receptionist for Stena last week completed her “elf training” ahead of reprising the role this winter.

She said: “We are looking for volunteers for everything.”

Ruth Crawford and Helen MacCuish are backing the Charlie House Christmas volunteer recruitment drive. Picture by Wullie Marr/DCT Media

Ruth relishes routine

Ruth Crawford, a stay-at-home mum with three young children, helped out at the charity’s Christmas market (now Curated Aberdeen) last winter.

She said: “It was something to do, and it was great fun.

“The kids are at primary school during the day, and I can do this.

“I really enjoy meeting people, and I look forward to my Fridays here.”

Ruth Crawford and Helen MacCuish looking after the Charlie House stand at Curated Aberdeen. Picture by Wullie Marr/DCT Media

‘I’d always wanted to help…’

Helen MacCuish retired from her job at Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital last year.

In her role as play reader, Helen was a source of comfort to scores of children as she helped them have fun despite undergoing some painful procedures.

As well as striking up a bond with generations of families, she became well acquainted with Charlie House.

Helen added: “I always wanted to do something to help these charities but never had the chance when I was working full-time.

“I really like it, and I really support what the charity is doing in trying to get a hospice here in the north-east.”

My stint as a volunteer at ReCharge cafe

One of my jobs was making sure the sandwiches were in fine supply. Picture by Wullie Marr/DCT Media

It’s been more than a decade since I last worked in a cafe.

And it perhaps ages me to admit it was serving up lunches at the much-missed restaurant at BHS on Union Street.

But on Friday I donned an apron once again to find out firsthand just how important volunteers are at ReCharge.

The cheery staff made me feel at home within minutes, and I had a great time mucking out.

From young mums to pensioners meeting up for a blether, it’s clear the cafe is popular with all ages.

Brian’s daily ritual

The first customer of the day, Brian, visits every morning for a latte while he reads his Evening Express.

But you get the sense that Brian enjoys the company as much as the coffee, and he is treated as part of the family.

He tells me that he enjoys the routine, as he selects the most uplifting stories from the paper to read out on the Gospel 4 Grampian radio station.

The sandwiches didn’t last long once the lunch time rush came along. Picture by Wullie Marr/DCT Media

I spend the morning loading and unloading the dishwasher, delivering hot drinks to tables and doing whatever bits and pieces I can to make life a bit easier for the staff.

Lunch time rush was eye-opening

Shortly after 1pm, it all kicks off. Suddenly an army of customers has materialised at the till.

Order after order flies in, Nicole whirling between the counter and the coffee machine as steam skooshes out in all directions.

I’d have resembled a headless chicken at this point, but she takes it all in her stride – still managing to sing along to the upbeat tunes drifting from her Alexa.

Lynne and I rush back and forth with trays of bubbling lentil soup and thick slices of sponge until every order has been delivered.

Somewhere in the rush, an extra two pots of tea are prepared – which I don’t have too much trouble finding takers for.

I wouldn’t like to overstate my own importance, but without a volunteer on hand to help out it could have meant a lot of hassle for workers…

And worse, perhaps some unhappy customers might have been put off from coming back and funding the charity with their orders.

Nicole getting things ready earlier in the day. Picture by Wullie Marr/DCT Media

Why you should make it a Charlie House Christmas

Christmas is a time when many of us decide to think of others less fortunate than ourselves.

And after a winter where the usual activities that bind communities together were cancelled, there is all the more reason to get involved in the weeks ahead.

And it’s not just about assisting the charity.

Helping out can bring many benefits for yourself and others…

Lynne told me: “Some of these customers might not have spoken to anyone for days, so they are looking for a conversation.

“It is a lifeline for them.”

All the profits from the cafe go towards the organisation’s Big Build Appeal to create a new specialist care centre in Aberdeen.

Hundreds of local families currently have to travel 1oo miles for such a facility.

To find out more and sign up for one of Charlie House’s Christmas volunteering opportunities, click here

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