Jay Kennedy: We should be proud of the helpers in our sector

There are legions of charities, community groups, volunteers, activists and donors behind the scenes doing vital work, writes our columnist

Jay Kennedy
Jay Kennedy

I'm a child of 1970s America, and one of my absolute favourite TV shows was Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Fred Rogers had a calm, gentle persona, equal parts kind pre-school teacher, empathetic child psychologist and local vicar. The show's jazz intro accompanied a model of his neighbourhood. He'd enter his home singing Won't You Be My Neighbor, while swapping his loafers for trainers, donning one of many coloured cardigans and finally addressing the viewers - young kids - directly to camera. "Welcome to my neighbourhood," he'd say. "How are you today, neighbour?"

The 1970s were also rife with terrorism: IRA bombs, PLO hijackings, Red Army Faction kidnappings and the Iran hostage crisis. The Italians even call the era "anni di piombo" - the years of lead - because of repeated shootings by extremists. The problems we face today aren't really new, though they're no less tragic.

Mister Rogers had some wise words for my six-year-old self. He said that when he was a young boy and heard something scary in the news, his mother would say to him: "Look for the helpers; you will always find people who are helping. If you look for the helpers, you will know there's hope".

In the wake of the Manchester and London terror attacks, and the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire, the most prominent helpers are often public servants such as police officers, firefighters and paramedics. Their bravery is rightly respected and supported. But there are legions of equally important helpers behind the scenes: charities, community groups, volunteers, activists and donors.

Not long after the attack in Manchester I was on holiday in France. On the return flight to Manchester airport, flight attendants started collecting donations for the Manchester Emergency Fund, set up by the British Red Cross for victims of the attacks. Everybody donated.

This intrinsic giving or helping response should give us faith and hope. It's not self-interested, transactional or driven by guilt. It's simply empathy with the situation of others. Money is often just the simplest way to do this remotely.

We should be bloody proud that so many in our sector are the helpers, even if they get little or no recognition. Politicians and media pundits cast blame and score cheap points, but our sector gets on with helping people. Whether it's housing and feeding Grenfell victims, counselling the survivors of terrorist atrocities, helping those affected to manage life-changing injuries, or working with young men at risk from extremism, this is critical work.

It isn't about soothing our consciences, or being passive and complacent. Helpers can campaign for change too. It's about spreading hope, persevering, responding to need and coming up with solutions, often at short notice. When faced with irrational tragedy, what other worthwhile response is there?

Like Mister Rogers' mum, we should tell our kids - and our grown-ups too - not just to look for the helpers but to be the helpers. After all, isn't that what we want them to aspire to?

Debra Allcock Tyler is away

Jay Kennedy is director of policy and research at the Directory of Social Change

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