After a remarkable 58 year working life, colleagues at the West Sussex Mediation Service (WSMS) based in Horsham gathered to say a fond farewell to Yvonne Helps.
She has been at the WSMS for eight years, but before that worked in varied roles including a banker, youth worker, psychiatric nurse and council housing officer.
In this special article, 74-year-old Yvonne reflects on the up and downs of her working life and retirement:
I was born in Essex, to a widowed mother and lived next to the famous Hornchurch airfield during the war.
I have never experienced boring from the day I was placed in the top drawer of a chest in an air raid shelter.
My mother worked in the City during the blitz and I was cared for by grandparents until I went to an orphanage at the age of four years, for safety from the bombing & apparently nearly died there from a kidney disease. I’ve been like a cat with nine lives ever since!
Throughout my varied career my most memorable narrow escapes have included:
• attacked by a Yorkie,
• held to ransom by a homeless person,
• had to talk down a knife wielding ex-offender,
• prevented a suicide
• sorted a gypsy family feud
• accosted by a sex offender
• Received a left hook in error from drunk, and amazed onlookers that I was still standing!
I only have a page or two, so for details you will have to read the book, but suffice to say despite what health and safety risk assessment legislation dictates, being a lone worker in an office has been my safest job!
A proud mum accompanied a very shy 15 years old girl, to a job interview. My school leaving report showing first in my class with 100 per cent attendance and a reference from my godfather who was a chief inspector of police, greatly influenced the City Bank‘s decision to take a chance on me. I became their first employee younger than 16 years of age and my nine years of commuting began.
Imagine, the area, now Barbican, was still a bombsite.
The highlight of the year for me was the firm’s free annual dinner at the Dorchester Hotel.
When I was 17 years old, to my mother’s horror, I wanted to leave the Bank to join the WRNs, but just in time to stop my foolish whim, I met a Royal Marine and when I was 20 years old we married and I received the traditional wedding gift of a Mappin & Webb canteen of cutlery.
In those days there was no choice of maternity leave, so three weeks before the birth of my first child I had to leave my job in the City, but carried on working one evening a week as a local authority youth worker. Two years later I was invited to return to my job at the bank for six weeks to assist with updating the accounting machines.
By the time I had my third and last child, in addition to the youth work, I had accumulated a variety of part-time jobs, that I juggled around school pick up times - cleaning, evening care work and auxiliary nurse bank for the Royal Marsden Hospital.
When the insurance agent knocked to collect the four weekly premiums and announced he was leaving to be a manager, I asked if I could take over his round. As I had three children of school age, I remember at my interview being asked if would I be able to cope with a full–time job? I replied, “At the moment I have five part-time jobs.”
I was the only female agent out of eight males attached to the areas branch and infuriated them by being top sales agent two years running and receiving a cut glass rose bowl and drinking glasses as the company prize.
I think all were relieved but thought I was mad when I left to train as a psychiatric nurse. It meant a vast drop in income for me, to a student’s wage, as well as long shift hours.
There were changes afoot in the insurance world due to the hazards of collecting money door to door.
The pressure of ever increasing sales targets ceased to motivate me. The children were now pursuing their own goals. It was time for me to focus on my career.
My work as a youth assistant had led to a post assisting the drama therapist on an Adolescent Unit, where I was able to attend training with the Institute of Group Analysis and partake in family therapy group work.
I also gained a 90 hour counselling certificate during this time. I was accepted for psychiatric nurse training as a salaried student, working on different psychiatric care wards for three years culminating with a three-hour qualifying exam.
I remember one morning shift, walking knee deep in snow from Sutton to Epsom, as all transport services were halted and everyone who made it to work that day were rewarded with a free lunch in the canteen.
I had a great social life with the students, despite the long exhausting shifts and all 11 of us managed to pass to become registered mental nurses. After qualifying I rotated between acute admission and drug and alcohol rehab.
A back injury whilst on the ward forced me to seek a less physically demanding career. I was employed by London Borough of Sutton (LBS), initially as a live-in and visiting warden to homeless families in temporary accommodation.
Later I worked as a community supported housing officer, having gained a professional housing qualification with Chartered Institute of Housing via a four years day release course sponsored by LBS. After 16 years’ service, I had to accept retirement at 65 years young. There was no option to work beyond this age.
I moved to Worthing to support my blind mother for the last five years of her life.
I was already a trained mediator when I joined West Sussex Mediation Service as a volunteer and the next year I was accepted as a case worker in the Horsham office. Since then I have attended inter-generational training and completed my portfolio as an accredited mediator.
Other volunteering tasks have included being a guide leader, chairing a trustee committee of an ex-offender’s hostel, doing night duty cover at the hostel and doing a sponsored sleep out for the homeless on a freezing December night. Currently I am a local authority school governor for a high school for girls.
Since the age of 11 I have been a keen Ballroom and Latin dancer, gaining medals in my youth. I still dance though not quite as agile now as you see on strictly! I once choreographed a dance routine for a youth group which won a London competition.
Back in the nineties my dancing hobby enabled me to host a West End Tea and evening dance club for a couple of years sponsored by a director of Mecca entertainment. In a previous era, when I had a good memory, I belonged to an amateur dramatic society, taking the lead part in two productions.
I now like gardening on an amateur scale, I plant it and hope it grows!
I have been an active member of the Liberal Democrat Party since they took control of LBS where I lived but whilst working for the same council I was unable to stand for election.
When I moved to Worthing I continued my interest in local politics and this year I am standing as a candidate in the ward where I live. So fingers crossed, although I fear in this borough I am batting for the losing team.
My eight years with WSMS has proved at times challenging yet rewarding. I will miss the diversity of the people, the dedication of the mediators and especially the support and friendship of my colleagues.
My work experiences have enriched my life with many memories to keep me going into my senior years.
As I hang up my hat and become unemployed for the first time since 1955, I have to confess, looking back, most of the time, I was just clearing up other peoples’ physical or emotional problems.
However, I do realise how lucky I was to have secured sponsored training leading to my professional qualifications whilst continuing to receive a salary and gaining practical experience to further my career.
This task is proving very difficult for school leavers, job seekers, or people wishing to change their career today.