“That is what the professionals would keep asking us, ‘why are you doing all this for nothing?’” Sheila Potter laughs, remembering her experience as a volunteer for the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games. “But I wouldn’t change a thing, I’d do it all over again,” she says.
For three months before the Games opened, Sheila would give up her evenings and weekends to make props and costumes for the £12 million opening and closing ceremonies, which involved a 4,000-strong cast.
It was not as if she weren’t already busily employed as a computing and IT lecturer in north-west England. “I did work hard then,” she remembers. “I’d be in work by seven every morning so that I could get away on time to do the volunteer work in the evening.”
Why did she decide to volunteer? “I thought, this is clearly going to be a special time for the north-west, it’s not going to come round again for me. I wanted to help make the north-west shine!”
She found many others with similar thoughts. “There was the odd skiver, but mostly I met lots of like-minded people. There was an amazing feeling of togetherness, especially once the ceremonies got underway,” Sheila says.
Volunteers of all ages, from 16-year-olds to retirees in their 70s, worked alongside Sheila, who was then in her early fifties. “I still keep in touch with many of them. We meet every Christmas for a meal together.”
Snapshots of the ceremonies still come vividly to mind for Sheila. “I remember being soaked to the skin at the closing ceremony – it poured with rain throughout. I had to ferry paint in a special sequence to the children huddled under this huge sheet,” she says, recalling the schoolchildren who covered themselves with red, blue and white paint to portray a giant British flag.
“At the Opening Ceremony, when Kirsty Howard [a terminally ill six-year-old girl who has done much charity work] went up with David Beckham to give the Jubilee Baton to the Queen, that was it for me,” she says. “I just started crying and crying. People were crying all over the place. The emotions were so strong. The feeling ‘wow, we’ve done it!’ after all the hard work.”
The experience didn’t end with the Games for Sheila. After registering with The Experience Corps database of over-50s with something to offer, Sheila found herself becoming a business mentor for The Prince’s Trust. Two years after that, an invitation to a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace landed on her doormat. “It’s funny the little twists life takes after you do something,” she muses.