Spending your 17th birthday steaming… in an Oxfam shop

Jamie Livingstone is Head of Oxfam Scotland and today ‘gave a shift’ at an Oxfam shop in Troon.

The backroom of the Oxfam shop in Troon feels very far away from the multiple crises facing the world right now.

From the too-often overlooked humanitarian disaster in Yemen, to the crisis in Bangladesh and the rescue effort after the earthquake in Mexico, it can be hard to make the connection when surrounded by bags of clothes, books, kids toys and more – all waiting to be sorted, priced, steamed and hung ready for sale.

Yet the truth is: Oxfam’s ability to respond to the emergencies around the world would be severely undermined without the 1,000-strong legion of volunteers who keep our 46 shops open for business across Scotland.

People like Leigh. She’s seventeen. In fact, today was her birthday. She chose to spend it steaming clothes in the Troon shop in Academy Street. She deserves huge credit for doing so.

Everyone who volunteers for Oxfam does so for their own reason. For some, they want to contribute to ending poverty in the UK and globally. For others, it gets them out the house, provides a way to meet new people, or to fill the gaps during their hunt for paid work. Regardless, all of them choose to turn up, and play their part.

Earlier today I was lucky enough to join some of them in Troon. It’s a great shop, with a brilliant manager, Gillian.

Donation levels are strong, but all the Calvin Klein handbags and nearly-new Armani coats in the world will make little impact to the fight against poverty without someone to sell them. And, while those who donate to our shops, and buy from them, play a critical role – we need more volunteers to staff them too.

Gillian estimates she needs around 70 regular volunteers to ensure the shop runs as efficiently as possible. Right now, she has 30. She’s calling on members of the local community to ‘Give a Shift’ to help run the shop and the nearby book and music shop on Church Street – the oldest Oxfam shop in Scotland at 45 years old.

The reality is that a similar need exists at many of our shops across the country. 

Volunteers are asked to give as little as four hours a week of their time and can take up a range of vital roles, from serving customers to sorting donations and arranging window displays. As I found it, you don’t need to be an expert. I was quickly put to work because, despite the shortage of volunteers, the shop is still very much open for business.

During my shift a van pulled up outside and unwanted furniture soon found its way into the shop. Just as fast, before the dust had been removed, some was on its way back out the door. Only the money generated for Oxfam’s work was left behind (as well as a packet of biscuits as a thank you for carrying a couple’s new chair to their car!).

The speed of turnaround hammered home to me the virtuous cycle of donate and re-use which increases the lifespan of the items themselves (reducing Scotland’s climate footprint) whilst generating critical funding for Oxfam.

Last year, Scotland’s shops raised over £2.9 million. It’s had incredible impact. Just £10 spent at an Oxfam shop could buy: safe clean water for 10 people or give a family the manure, fertiliser and training to grow their own crops. 

So, next time you hear about Oxfam’s emergency response think, of course, about those who need our help but also about those making it possible. Picture Leigh in Troon steaming clothes on her 17th birthday. I know I will.