Joan See, 91, has volunteered for Child Bereavement UK for over 15 years. She has been chosen to receive a Child Bereavement UK 21 Champions Award in recognition of her endless energy, willingness to help and selfless commitment to the charity. She is an inspiration to our younger generation of volunteers and staff alike.
I was an only child. I was brought up in the army – my dad was a regular soldier and we lived in Edinburgh. I have always loved aeroplanes and I wanted to go into the air force rather than the army. I wasn’t old enough when I volunteered but they said when I was 17 ½ they would call me in. I had my medical and started my trade as a flight mechanic. I only ever reached the rank of SACW – Senior Aircraft Woman.
I was an engine fitter in 542 Squadron at RAF Benson in the Photographic Reconnaisance unit; the planes had no armament fitted at all, only cameras. I met my husband, Peter John, in the RAF – he was a trained pilot and was sent out to the States, but, as the war was coming to an end in Europe, he was posted back to England to RAF Medmenham. All the photographs that our aircraft took went to Medmenham for intelligence – a very ‘hush hush’ job. He was a trained artist and worked making models from photos for Bomber Command. They had to be very accurate – it was very exciting. After the war, he worked on Watership Down and Dangermouse. We were married 1945.
I was posted to Shropshire first, having done my training, and I worked as a mechanic on Airspeed Oxfords which were twin radial engines. I had to make sure there were wedges under the wheels and everything was OK; I would turn the propeller round until it was on compression, climb up into the cockpit and push the throttle forward – you used to have to start them like you did cars. I was alright on my own, however every pilot had a trainee – it was dreadful because they would put their foot on the throttle and blow me off the wings! When women first got posted out to stations they were very apprehensive of us doing the jobs but in the end they would rather have had WAFs as mechanics because we were far more conscientious and reliable. They said “If you’ve got faith in what you’re doing and are prepared to go up in an aircraft, then fine!” We didn’t get to go up much though as Spitfires only have one pilot.
I was either out in the field and had my own Spit or was in the hangar, taking the nose cone off. There were 12 bolts which hold the propeller on, and because of the torque you had to be very careful how you undid each bolt. I did engines not propellers. I’m amazed when I think back. I now think ‘Isn’t it silly? I used to be able take a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine to pieces but now I can’t cope with a DVD!’
We had a family very early on and my daughters were born within months of each other so I was busy with the family and, much as I needed to go out to work, I didn’t because of the family. The children were grown up when I came to work at Wycombe Hospital. I started there as a volunteer Midwives’ Liaison Officer, I did the home visits prior to or after a baby was born and if I had other information about the expectant mum, I would inform the midwives, which I felt was very important. I had four children of my own, two girls and two boys, and have been very fortunate that they are all very healthy. I also have four grandchildren and five great grandchildren. When you think that a child starts as just a seed in the womb it’s just amazing, and to have them perfect – I was very lucky.
After I finished at Wycombe Hospital, I started volunteering at the Child Bereavement Trust, as the charity was called then, in West Wycombe. The person who originated it was so appalled at the lack of understanding when a mum lost her baby that she thought ‘I ought to do something about this!’ and that’s when she started the charity. I volunteered there for over 15 years. Because of having worked with midwives it seemed the most obvious step.
As a volunteer I have done whatever I was asked, mostly administrative tasks that take the load off and save time for the girls, mail outs, nothing that requires brains!! I seem to be quite good at that! It says a lot that the charity has a wide variety of volunteers from young people to older people – it is very important. I’m a make do and mend sort of person – I said ‘I don’t know what you’d do without me!’ I enjoyed it; I used to make the girls laugh with my stories, they were such a lovely lot. Ann Chalmers (Chief Executive) always makes such a fuss of me, she really is such a lovely person. She always says ‘Joan, how lovely to see you!’ and gives me a hug.
I have volunteered at the Snowdrop Walks and would hand out the goody bags to children. I had the privilege of meeting Prince William and Kate when they came to the charity at Saunderton. I was introduced to them as Child Bereavement UK’s oldest volunteer. William said “Well, look at my grandfather – keep going, go on, keep going!” He was lovely and Kate was very beautiful and very popular. As I was introduced to Kate I said “Oh, I thought William was coming!” and she said “He’s in the other room, why?” I said “I want to talk aeroplanes with him!” ‘You will!” she said. That was my highlight, meeting William and Kate.
I feel the work of the charity is really important – particularly helping midwives. I just think that any volunteering is an important job. I would say to anyone thinking about volunteering for CBUK that it is the most rewarding job and I enjoyed it. Volunteering was very worthwhile to me, they said I was one of the most dedicated volunteers they had. I used to go in on a Friday morning, or if they needed me on another day in particular. I had to retire earlier this year but I do miss it and think of them every Friday morning.
I am 91 now and my secret is I don’t smoke – it causes wrinkles! I think it’s all about keeping positive and feeling very strongly about things and keeping busy. I just like people. Child Bereavement UK did me proud – they put on a retirement party for me at the charity – I was so touched. There was a beautiful spread – so many cakes and sandwiches and they presented me with an M&S voucher. I am hoping to find something to wear to the presentation and I will say ‘Look girls, this is what you bought!’
In 2009 the charity put me forward and I received the League of Mercy award for volunteering and I won the Judge’s Special Award at the Charity Staff & Volunteers Awards this year. I feel overawed by receiving a 21 Champions Award. I really didn’t know why I should get an award for doing something I enjoyed doing. As a volunteer you don’t expect to get rewarded for doing these kinds of things. All volunteers are important people. I’m just glad I was able to be of use.