The student volunteers who help to make hot meals at Jimmy’s Cambridge

Cat Somerville and Niamh Buckingham became friends soon after arriving at Robinson College. They share a determination to make a difference. Now in their third year, both volunteer with a Cambridge charity that provides emergency accommodation for homeless people.

Cat Somerville and Niamh Buckingham (Nick Saffell)

NIAMH: We’re volunteer helpers at Jimmy’s Cambridge. It’s a charity that provides bed and board for around 20 people in a former Baptist chapel on East Road, right in the middle of Cambridge. Without Jimmy’s, many of them would be sleeping on the streets.

CAT: We’re just two of the many volunteers who fill various roles within the organisation. Every couple of weeks we sign up for shifts in the kitchen, preparing evening meals which we help to serve. When we get to Jimmy’s, the ingredients are ready in the kitchen and the meal is planned.

CAT: Because it’s the main meal of the day, it’s always hot food — for example sausages, veg and roast potatoes. Working in the kitchen, chopping and peeling, is a welcome break from writing essays. There’s a really friendly atmosphere and we always feel welcome.

NIAMH: The people who stay at Jimmy’s are called guests. Everyone has their own room and there are daytime activities focusing on resettlement. The permanent staff are great. We’ve learnt a lot from them about treating everyone with respect and dignity.

NIAMH: Talking to people at Jimmy’s puts your student worries into perspective. As students, we’re incredibly lucky and it’s easy to get caught up in the ‘Cambridge bubble’. It’s important to escape this and keep in touch with the real world.

CAT: Being a volunteer means you get to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise interact with. At Jimmy’s we meet the residents themselves and the other volunteers who live in Cambridge. They come from all kinds of backgrounds and they’re all ages.

NIAMH: When we’re serving the food we get a chance to talk to the residents and get to know them a bit. Every individual has a different story and it makes you realise how anybody could end up on the streets.

CAT: I’ve become increasingly aware of how privileged I am. I went to a private school and was really lucky to have teachers who knew what applying to Cambridge was like. I knew I wanted to help with voluntary projects as a student.

NIAMH: I went to a state comprehensive in Croydon. My family has always been ambitious for me and my school supported me to apply to Cambridge. I first visited the University with a scheme run by the Sutton Trust.

CAT: I’m doing a degree in English and Niamh’s doing Human, Social and Political Sciences (HSPS). In our second year we joined the committee of a student society called Cambridge Hub. It acts as a central point in the city for volunteering opportunities. It also offers skilled placements and provides a much-needed bridge between ‘town and gown’.

NIAMH: We could see that homelessness was on the rise in Cambridge and wanted to make a small contribution to local efforts to support some of society’s most vulnerable individuals.

CAT: Volunteering prompts all kinds of ethical questions. We’ve thought a lot about our motivation and impact. For several years there’s been a big debate about ‘voluntourism’ — short term projects that might do more harm than good. We’re both wary of projects that seem to be a self-congratulatory exercise.

NIAMH: This is where Cambridge Hub plays such a valuable role. It helps match people to roles where they learn about issues, connect with each other and tackle social problems. People who sign up get a chance to think long and hard about their own privilege and the contribution we can all make.

NAIMH: Through Cambridge Hub, we’ve both done internships with charities in London. I worked for an organisation called Transitions London. It has just two staff members and offers free career advice to skilled refugees. You get situations where highly trained engineers are working as packers in warehouses.

NIAMH: Eventually I’d like to work in social policy, hopefully through the Civil Service Fast Track scheme. During my degree, I’ve specialised in social anthropology and absolutely loved it. You can go into a lecture and come out with a completely different world view.

CAT: I definitely want to do some kind of social work, ideally with children’s services. I volunteer with a charity called Campus Children’s Holidays which runs summer camps for children in care in Liverpool and the Wirral. It’s brilliant.

CAT: Some of the Campus leaders are people who were in care themselves. Half are Cambridge students. Last year we took around 40 children to rural Yorkshire. It was their only holiday of the year so really important they had fun. I had seven children in my group, aged from six to nine. I didn’t get much sleep!

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life interview series.

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