A visit to the Derbyshire branch of the oldest Armed Forces charity

PUBLISHED: 16:54 10 June 2015 | UPDATED: 16:54 10 June 2015

Chris Theobald presents David Wheatcroft with a cheque raised by Derby College

Chris Theobald presents David Wheatcroft with a cheque raised by Derby College

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SSAFA (Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association) is the oldest Armed Forces charity and has been operating in Derbyshire for over 120 years. Derbyshire Life visits the Belper branch

Nepal night  Photo: Ray HeathNepal night Photo: Ray Heath

IT is the oldest Armed Forces charity and has been operating in Derbyshire for over 120 years. SSAFA (Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association), was established in 1885 when Major James Gildea watched the Second Expeditionary Force set sail for Egypt and reflected on who, in times of need, would look after the men’s families in their often long absence from home.

He wrote to The Times appealing for funds and volunteers, and the charity was up and running within three months. It blossomed in Derbyshire under the initial patronage of the Duchess of Devonshire in 1891. The current National Patron is Her Majesty the Queen and the charity continues to offer practical support and assistance to servicemen and women, veterans and their families throughout the county.

The President of the Derbyshire Branch is Her Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant for Derbyshire Mr William Tucker, the Chairman is Mr David Wheatcroft MVO DL and the Branch Secretary is Colonel (Rtd) Mike Cheetham.

It has neither the iconic poppy of the Royal British Legion nor the high profile of Help for Heroes, and in the words of the Derbyshire branch secretary and ex-soldier, Col Mike Cheetham, SSAFA has ‘bumped along the bottom, doing our bit and doing it well but not necessarily prominently. We are a vibrant organisation and very good at hiding our light under the proverbial bushel,’ he observes.

John Steele receiving his award for 30 years fund-raising for SSAFA  Photo: Ray HeathJohn Steele receiving his award for 30 years fund-raising for SSAFA Photo: Ray Heath

The Branch Chairman and Executive Committee are working to change all that. Amongst other things, the charity’s new strapline – ‘Lifelong support of our Forces and their families’ – will soon be on beer mats in the county’s pubs, and its presence strengthened at events throughout the year. Armed Forces day in June will see SSAFA organising a Veterans Fair on Derby Market, and it was highly visible at the popular World War Two commemoration weekend at Crich Tramway Village in April.

Eligibility for the charity’s help was breathtakingly generous when it was set up: a requirement of one day’s paid service in any of the Armed Forces. That came to include not only the men, women and their dependents of the First and Second World Wars but also of those doing National Service, however long the intervening years before support was requested.

There are requests from veterans themselves – anything from a regimental cap or badge for a reunion or commemoration to replacement of goods when things break down in the house. The charity, which in 2013 dealt with 483 cases and distributed £187,000, is sensitive to the attitudes of this generation of men and women, who very firmly ‘don’t want charity’. The elderly, Mike Cheetham says, rarely if ever ask for anything because that is how they were brought up: others ask on their behalf. It can be anything from a new kettle to a stair lift, a replacement fridge to a respite holiday, a cry for help over debt.

A simple request can often mask a greater underlying need – which is where the Derbyshire branch’s 43 volunteer caseworkers come in. Speed of action is the watchword for this charity, which responds immediately to a request for help. Eight SSAFA divisions in the county broadly match the local authority boundaries, so the local caseworker will go out as soon as possible to visit and to verify the genuineness of the request. ‘They are trained and encouraged not just to look at the initial request for help but to assess any wider need,’ David says. ‘Often it’s a cry for help.’

SSAFA stall at a fund-raising eventSSAFA stall at a fund-raising event

And often, he observes, cases are presented right on a deadline – ‘“I’m being evicted tomorrow – what can you do?” That’s not unusual – I suppose it’s pride. It’s very often a thirteenth hour plea, especially where there are children concerned.’

David Wheatcroft undertook a caseworkers’ training course as part of his induction into the role of chairman and says, ‘I have the greatest admiration for them. They don’t know what they’re going into or what they’re going to find. They put themselves in that situation on a regular basis. It’s all for Derbyshire. We don’t discriminate between service people – the people we help are our people, who live and work as part of our community.’

No charity in this field can or would want to operate in isolation: SSAFA works and networks with all the statutory and social services and one of the first questions a caseworker – trained to look at the whole gambit of someone’s problems – will ask is whether the person asking for help is receiving all the statutory benefits. It’s non-judgmental, about needing help rather than deserving it.

‘SSAFA rely on a whole range of people across the country – housing, hostels, food banks, a network of charities. We are the people who will try and put together a solution,’ David says.

Christine Plant with the SSAFA Christmas tree at Hardwick Hall last DecemberChristine Plant with the SSAFA Christmas tree at Hardwick Hall last December

And that makes it hard, he comments, to have a public profile or to appeal in the public eye – especially as the needs are met in confidence and the recipients naturally refer to remain private.

The branch and divisions have to rely on local fundraising to cover day to day running costs. Some volunteers undertake vital fund raising across Derbyshire throughout the year to keep the charity operational.

The charity operates from a no-frills office in the Drill Hall in Belper, accessed via a steeply cobbled street and arguably the most potholed lane in the county. They’re a dedicated bunch but new and younger volunteers are urgently needed for caseworkers and for fund raisers to enable the charity in its current drive to raise money, enhance the footfall and increase the public knowledge of SSAFA, but most of all to help those in need.

‘We do what we can and we soldier on,’ Mike Cheetham concludes. ‘We need people and we never stop recruiting.’

Anyone who would like further information should contact SSAFA’s Derbyshire branch on 01773 828116.

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