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A Way of Life

Lorna Creswell tells us about Volunteering at The Forres Area Credit Union

Growing up in Aberdeen I never liked history, partly perhaps I blame the teacher’s dull, droning, nasal voice. Now as I have become a ‘recycled teenager’ I believe this is key to all our futures.

During this pandemic, now about to commence the tenth week of the ‘lockdown’ (As I write this, it is 6 a.m. Sunday 24th May 2020) I must record somewhere what I was doing.

Though I have been encouraging others to keep a diary at this time I have failed miserably to do likewise. Even though I work from an overloaded room full of old diaries and archives, creating more seems a thankless task. Whoever said the ‘paperless office’ would be the future at the onset of computers has not visited our home!

As I constantly attempt to clear the shelves I continue to read, reminisce and keep things and until Sue Davies of tsiMORAY asked me to write for Volunteer’s Week, I have put my memory to the test instead.

‘When did the Volunteering start?’ would be the question and the topic – and of course last week it was the Credit Union. When I reflect more seriously on why and look further back, volunteering for me, has been a way of life. My life story cannot be told in 1,000 words so I’ll keep focussed on the ‘Credit Union!’

I was ‘hooked’ at the ethics and the truly amazing concept of ‘Community Credit Unions’

Inspired by the work of the ‘Social Strategy’ department of the Grampian Regional Council in the early 1990s, as a Community Education Worker based in Forres, I was invited to join a training programme on Credit Unions based in Aberdeen.

The participants were wide ranging -- fire brigade, Council staff from a broad range of sections and community representatives mainly from Aberdeen.

Travelling back and fore I was ‘hooked’ at the ethics and the truly amazing concept of ‘Community Credit Unions’ where grassroots’ ordinary people are empowered to set up Savings & Loans Co-operatives. Why though would we do that in Forres? My studies had been on assessing community needs and supporting how to address them. My belief then, and I still hold, is that every community has the best knowledge and experience of where they live so best placed to address those needs.

Launching the Credit Union in Forres

It came to pass very soon after the training programme that Ardersier Fabrication Yard nearby closed, leaving many out of work. This resulted in Forres showing the 2nd highest unemployment figures for Scotland. This was devastating for families; how could bringing a handful of local residents together ever be able to support these families through their destitute situation? With the backing of colleagues, we were guided on how to progress based on previous experience gleaned from an Aberdeen based group who were setting up one too. (Now known as the St Machar Credit Union.)

We launched as Forres Area Credit Union in 1995 and used a small room upstairs in Forres House Community Centre on Mondays and Thursdays open for members to join the co-operative to get the support for their circumstances and allow savings of small amounts to build for their uncertain futures.

Not for Profit, Not for Charity, But for Service

The basis of Credit Unions is for members to build a savings ‘pot’ at the same time a relationship in developing that ownership and belonging so that when borrowing is needed the trust, dignity and character has been developed for the loan to be granted. During the repayment of loans, it is expected that some of the loan repayment is added to the original savings ‘pot’ so that future loans can be granted on the strength of the gradual increasing savings. Loans are for ‘philanthropic’ purposes and need to be paid back as it is ‘NOT FOR PROFIT, NOT FOR CHARITY BUT FOR SERVICE’ so we rely on the interest charged on loans to pay for running costs.

It is ‘run by members for members’ so the Co-operative movement is owned by those in membership. A volunteer ‘Board of Directors’ is elected from the membership each year. This is sometimes hard to explain to Job Centre claimants that should they join for a small fee, then they can own a High Street business!

Plans to Expand

A growing membership and good advice from our affiliated body, ‘Scottish League of Credit Unions’ and after much fundraising led us in 2007 to buy outright a small shop on the High Street to convert to a Financial Service. Again by 2015 we were outgrowing that premises so in 2017 bought and moved to new premises, formerly M&Co, that had sadly been vacant for some time.

Our plans to expand to support Moray & Nairn have been in place since 2013 though, with little paid resources, largely voluntary support and increasing legislation and responsibilities we have found it difficult to embrace that change. However, in March 2020 we received the confirmation of our name change to Moray Firth Credit Union Ltd so an excitement to relaunch BUT trepidation with all that needed done.

THEN the pandemic...

...resulted in some of our volunteers having to self-isolate due to their age and underlying health conditions so others have stepped in to provide an open door on ‘restricted hours’ for our members to have face to face support and access to their ‘essential, financial service’. In the background, we have been preparing to relaunch so that we can continue to serve our members and include any potential new members that may be from the wider population and from remote areas.

Some preliminary work has been done in Buckie and Elgin with a view to locate collection points based there (though the use of technology has been escalated during this crisis so more volunteers with computer skills will need to be recruited).

The need now for permanent paid resources to be able to embrace the demand and to complement what volunteers do to take us to the next phase is daunting. With all reports being presented unemployment statistics are predicted to soar. Sadly, many more than those days of our what seems ‘humble beginnings’ of 1995.

The question is why would anyone volunteer with the Credit Union since the 1990’s?

Initially, I was a Community Education Worker with Grampian Regional Council so my role was seen as empowering…I guess I’m passionate about ‘communities leading communities’ and as I read about Torry in Aberdeen fighting to preserve Victoria Road school and Laurence De Marco stepping back from SENSCOT soon and at 80 saying ‘I would make the same choices again’ there is always something or someone there to inspire me.

On this occasion, it has been COVID-19 where I have been part of a COALFACE team in the Credit Union with other mature, ‘recycled teenagers’ so every day a new day being inspired by people going that extra mile!

A ‘Sense of Belonging’ is what we hear young people say and I resonate with that need in all of us.

So, during this Volunteers Week, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE consider joining our TEAM; there is no ‘I’ in TEAM!

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