May's Community Hero – George Varney from Woking
Every month we team up with Christian Nightlife Initiatives/Street Angels and tell the story of a local community hero. This month's is George Varney (61) from Woking, who turned early retirement into an opportunity to serve God in a different way.
George had worked for Shell, the oil company, for 41 years and a health issue in 2016 saw him rethinking his life and taking early retirement at the end of 2017. George had become involved in Street Angels in Woking in February 2011 and suddenly having extra time on his hands meant he was open to God leading him to look for something different.
George takes up the story: “The church I attended was looking at setting up a social enterprise to help the homeless, underprivileged or marginalised members of the community to better integrate into society and particularly, where possible, into the mainstream workforce.
“Buying some wood on the day after I retired I came across a website for the National Community Wood Recycling Project. They ran social enterprises across the UK, collecting wood from builders yards and inviting people on the margins of society to work in the workshops to gain life and work experience and receive mentoring.
“I took this idea to one of the church leaders and he set up a steering group, now the board of trustees, and we got up and running with the Useful Wood Company. We started the workshop in September 2019 whilst maturing the rest of the business model, and we finally opened officially in February 2020.”
Wood is collected from building sites, sorted and then either sold back to the public, or used in the workshops to make furniture and other items. Unusable wood is sent to be turned into fertiliser so that none of the collected timber ends up in landfill.
However just as the project got going, the coronavirus sadly meant the Useful Wood Company had to be put on hold.
Asked about any outstanding stories in the first few months, George shared, “We are early into the project and have had mixed success.
“One gentleman had been long term unemployed and in ‘move on’ accommodation following on from time in the night shelter. His confidence was low when he started, but after four months of working with the Useful Wood Company he left us to set up his own business selling Betterware and other catalogue-based products door to door.
“It was amazing to see his confidence grow as he worked with the team over the four months.
“Another gentleman was a chronic alcoholic who was showing great promise and was going from strength to strength. Just before Christmas he had a downturn and just as he was coming through that, the coronavirus hit.
“We have people with long-term illness and those from halfway housing. We are able to see people progress and it is amazing how turning bits and pieces of wood into a final product gives people a source of pride and achievement.
George is hoping that the Useful Wood Company can grow and develop further. He would love to see a fleet of vans and the opportunity to employ some of the volunteers to drive and deliver.
“At one stage, we were almost about to give up because property is so expensive that we couldn’t find a suitable place at an affordable price. Eventually we were given the old Job Centre rent and rate free, as it was empty awaiting demolition. The building is very close to the centre of Woking and is well known to our clients.
“Our hope is to build the business up so that when the Job Centre site is ready for redevelopment we can then afford commercial rates.”
George is also involved as a volunteer and trustee of Woking Street Angels.
“Street Angels is great fun! The change in the town is noticeable – Woking had a reputation for fights and was not a nice place to be at 2am. These days we don’t see fights and the police report crime rates have gone down substantially.
“Everyone who is out now recognises us and comes for chats, help and flip-flops. We have very much built up relationships with the nightclub community.
“Street Angels was my introduction to the homeless community in Woking and this led me on to volunteer for a regular meal which got me connected with this community and helped me to understand the needs and despair. This has really helped as we set up the Useful Wood Company.”
George encourages people to always talk to those who you are aiming to help, so that real needs and not perceived needs are met.
“There is a very real need for more people to volunteer in community and charity organisations. In these times where people are furloughed and have less pressures on time, George is encouraging those who are re-evaluating life during this coronavirus lockdown to look at investing into the voluntary sector, as this plays such a vital role in our society.
“The work I am involved in is really rewarding and to see lives changed and having fun whilst seeing this is such a privilege.”