Feeding communities and planting pollinators: What volunteers did for the Big Help Out

The National talks to some of those taking part in third day of coronation weekend events in London

The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester at the Big Help Out event at St Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church in Kensington, west London. Reuters
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The coronation bank holiday’s emphasis on diversity and tolerance continued across London on Monday as people gathered for the Big Help Out national volunteering drive.

At St Mark’s Church in west London, the city’s Coptic and Oriental Orthodox community had gathered for a big lunch, organised by more than 50 young volunteers from the parish.

It was among the 52,000 events taking place across Britain on Monday, with more than six million people volunteering at community centres, soup kitchens, charity shops and public gardens.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the day of nationwide volunteering would be “part of the legacy of this historic moment of unity”.

The Prince and Princess of Wales and their children were seen attending charitable events, while the gathering at St Mark’s was marked by its own royal visit from the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.

Archbishop Angaelos, the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London and papal legate to the UK, told The National the coronation celebrations were an occasion to “nurture relationships” within the community.

“We have a strong volunteer base in our church and we invest in a youth ministry,” he said. “It's so nice to bring our neighbours together on this day, we’re helping the community by bringing them together.”

He was among the faith leaders who attended the coronation service at Westminster Abbey on Saturday, at which the inclusion of figureheads from different religions was “an important reflection” of British society, he said. “Seventy years ago there was no ecumenical or interfaith element,” the archbishop added.

Prince William and family volunteer as part of the Big Help Out

Prince William and family volunteer as part of the Big Help Out
Prince William and family volunteer as part of the Big Help Out

Most of congregation, he explained, are Egyptian-born or of Egyptian origin. But the church also attracts other Oriental Orthodox communities from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Armenia and India.

Georgia, a university student from West London, volunteered to prepare fresh juice on the day. “I wanted to help because I love the community here, and we love serving,” she said. “I also wanted to raise awareness about the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Zarif Bengharious, a retired caterer who volunteered at the cake stand, said the coronation weekend had made him feel proud of living in the UK. “You feel it's our country and our king,” he said.

It was a double celebration for some as the feast day of St Mark, a patron saint of the Coptic Church, falls on May 8.

Akberek Yemane has been attending St Mark’s for more than 14 years. She wore a white cotton cloth around her head, which Eritrean women traditionally wear to attend church services. “My son lives in Derby so I watched the coronation by myself,” she said. “I came here to celebrate St Mark and of course the king.”

Closer to Buckingham Palace, volunteers had gathered at Green Park to help plant native wildflowers in the area of floral tributes to Queen Elizabeth II.

Chloe Schendel-Wilson, a 30-year old who works in the area of disability, said she does not do much gardening.

Yet she came from Surrey in the suburbs of London to take part in the big gardening event. “I thought it would be a nice thing to do,” she said. “It’s a tribute to the queen and a chance to soak up the atmosphere in London.”

Andy Oakley, from south-west London, became a volunteer at the Royal Parks after retiring. He came to central London on Monday to teach new volunteers how to plant a sprouting native wildflower.

“It was great to meet all the people coming along, several of whom are keen to do more volunteering, and that’s wonderful,” he said.

The plants, native to the UK, included the clustered bell flower, dog violet, harebell, self-heal, speedwell and perennial flax.

The new floral tribute to the queen will include a strip of blue flowers that represents a stream, surrounded by other coloured flowers, Mr Oakley said. “We’re laying out blue flowers this morning, and other colours around it in the afternoon,” he added.

The plants are all pollinators which will attract wildlife to the park, including more bees. “This will be more natural and it’s a change to traditional styles of bedding plants. We’re becoming more conscious about attracting pollinators,” Mr Oakley said.

Helena, a Finnish expat who has lived in London for 16 years, said she hoped she had contributed to the upkeep of London’s parks.

“The parks are my favourite part of London, we’re so lucky to have them. I run and walk here often,” she said. “It’s a big contrast to the busy cosmopolitan town.

Across the Thames at the Notre Dame Community Hall in Lambeth, the UK Latin Community (UKLC) hosted its third family event of the bank holiday weekend, with dance lessons, performers, arts and crafts, and food.

"Most of the families we host are from Latin America," said UKLC director Wendy Innocente. "We work with families who struggle with the language barrier, we help them with translating forms for services like free school meals."

While the event aimed to celebrate Latin American culture, it also sought to teach the young about British traditions. The arts and crafts stand for children included colouring-in templates of the British flag and the crown.

"It's important for our community to understand the coronation," said Ms Innocente. "We are trying to understand British values, trying to know more about the festivities and culture of this country, so that we can be more integrated."

Updated: May 08, 2023, 4:52 PM

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