Vanessa's story: 40 years of volunteering

This month, we're celebrating 40 years of providing quality, holistic care to our community. The doors to our hospice first opened on 29 May 1984 and someone who has been with us since that very day is our volunteer, Vanessa. Ahead of our 40th Anniversary, we caught up with Vanessa to hear more about her experience of volunteering with us over the last four decades and what first motivated her to join.

I became a volunteer in May 1984. My Mother received a cancer diagnosis in 1978, and there was no treatment offered, which was quite normal in those days. Six months later, it had spread and sadly, she died aged just 59. After my Father died seven years later, some friends kindly donated money in their memory to the Thames Valley Hospice. That was my introduction to the hospice movement, and when I discovered there was one down the road from where I lived - St John’s Hospice.

A month after its opening, the late Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother visited our hospice.

I got an introduction and was invited to come along, which I did. On arrival I was told to leave my coat and bag and was shown the ward and almost immediately they set me to work! In those days there were no DBS checks or training schemes - and there were no restrictions on the support you could give to patients, I could move them, feed them, but what I could not do was perch on their bed. We never dared sit down even for a moment as the matron did not allow idleness.  

Over my 40 years volunteering at St John’s, I have seen a few moves and re-arrangements of the hospice and new services launched to cater for even more patients. Something I will never forget, and I think was very praiseworthy, was the hospice’s work caring for patients with AIDS. At the beginning, it was a very scary time but as understanding of the illness grew, it became easier to work with and it led to Princess Diana visiting the hospice when the new unit opened. I wasn’t there on the day she came but the following day, patients told me of their experience of meeting her. It was like she was a beacon of hope in dark days.

The late Diana, Princess of Wales visiting the Day Care Unit when it was opened in 1987.

I volunteer on the Inpatient Unit and one of my tasks is to take the menus for the following day - and what an amazing choice they have. Some members of the catering team have been around since the very early days of my volunteering, including Aine who has been supporting patients with their nourishing meals for almost as long as I’ve been there.  

Volunteering at the hospice has been such a large part of my life and I simply can’t give it up. The only break from volunteering I have had over the last 40 years was during the Covid-19 pandemic. This was when volunteers could no longer come in. To help keep patients safe.  

We have recently moved to live in the country, and I only manage to do the odd shift at St John’s here and there. But I have become a volunteer at my local hospice so it feels comfortable, and I come back to St John’s whenever I can to see all the familiar faces.

We're so grateful to Vanessa for sharing her story with us and for all of the support she has given to our community over the last 40 years. You can read more about our hospice's story here, or learn more about the various ways you can get involved in our 40th Anniversary celebrations here.

If you'd like to learn more about volunteering at the hospice and the different roles available, please visit

Click to return to the top of the page