I rang James the other day.
“I need you to do something for me – I want you to let me write about you.”
“I hate you,” he said.
“I know but I don’t care”.
“I hate you but I’d hate myself more if I didn’t say yes.”
“Yep, I was reckoning on that”.
James Leinhardt – slim, fit 35 year old who can turn a few heads; (He’ll kill me); happily married to the beautiful Talia; runs a successful business developing and importing disability aids; father to four mischievous boys aged 10, 9, 7 and 5.
But he has a secret known only to a handful of close family and friends – not something he wants broadcasted, till now that is – for the last 4 or 5 years, he’s been engaging in a behaviour on a regular basis that at least one unimpressed close friend describes as “self-serving”.
He does voluntary work.
Yes there it is – out in the open! But worse still, he does it for more than one charity – The Fed and, through Manchester Maccabi, Langdon College and Community, having set up their disabled football team, which recently played Manchester City and Wigan own disabled teams and will shortly take part in a national tournament at West Bromwich Albion.
So, why the cloak and dagger?
“I don’t want to be seen as a do-gooder”.
Perhaps he’s worried it will ruin his naughty-boy image, inherited from Uncle John (I know – I went to school with him!) and passed down to his own offspring.
So is it self-serving?
“I’m happy to admit that! None of us is Mother Teresa.”
Talk to James about volunteering and he literally lights up. He loves it – but not just for himself – for his kids too because, as he says,
“I’ve got four naughty boys. It’s not beyond them to give someone a kick or shout out a part of the anatomy in the middle of class. But largely because of my volunteer work they’ve got to meet all sorts of people and can handle themselves amazingly in the real world.”
James’ involvement with Langdon sees him running their football team, made up of young adults with a range of life-challenges such as Asperger’s or learning difficulties. And his own boys go along to watch training and matches and love meeting the lads.
As a befriender for The Fed he regularly spends time visiting people who may not have family nearby and on occasions takes his children along with him to Heathlands Village:
“My kids have come across people with dementia – sometimes very agitated; they’ve met survivors of the Holocaust. It doesn’t faze them. They normally have ants in their pants but they can handle a social situation with people who are “different” or where the conversation is serious.
Being a volunteer has taught me so much about what people face and I’ve been able to talk to my boys about things and even let them see and find out for themselves. In Israel they came with me to a hospital to visit to a 20 year old soldier who’d just been blown-up and blinded in one eye. They sat by his bed chatting with him for two hours.”
Listening to James his passion is palpable.
“The first chap I got to befriend for The Fed was Max*. He was a survivor and the most phenomenal human being. You can’t imagine what he’d been through but every time I saw him he was smiling and singing. And I got to spend a year getting to know him and hearing his story directly. It’s imprinted on my brain.
My older kids also met him and they learnt to sit and listen and relate to serious stuff. One of them is very hyper but he sat like a mensch at the communal Yom Hashoah event.
When you first have children you think it’s easy – you feed them, change them, put them down to sleep but then you realise “I’ve got these 4 boys and it’s my job to teach them how to become men. Part of becoming a man is about being a good person. Education is more than focusing on grades and working within set parameters.”
I got off the phone from James feeling high. He has inspired me but I remember he’s begged me,
“Please don’t make me sound like a martyr”.
The rascal who was chucked off his first uni course because “apparently you were meant to go to lectures” is one of The Fed’s less likely volunteers, you may think, but he’s doing a brilliant job.
Sadly Max* died a year or so after they met but there’s no doubt James’ friendship did him a lot of good towards the end of his life. These days he visits another survivor, Henry* who recently lost his wife. I’ve seen them together; their mutual affection is plain – you might easily take them for grandfather and grandson.
“I get so much reward out of being with him and making him laugh”.
So why, if the prize is so great, are some people so reluctant to volunteer? Is it lack of time?
“No. I think anyone can find an hour or two. I believe it’s fear. People think if they sign up to volunteer for The Fed, for example, they’ll get hold of you and keep asking you to do more and more. But that’s total rubbish – it’s completely on my terms. I tell them what I want to do and how often and for how long. Sure, sometimes if they’re in a fix they’ll ask me to do something extra – and if I can, I can, and if I can’t, or don’t want to, I say “no” and that’s the last I hear of it.”
Thanks James. Hope you don’t really hate me!