Jo gives up a celebrity life to help needy and homeless

JO HYAMS had a coveted job signing up celebrities for sports companies.

But she left it behind to devote herself to voluntary work for the homeless and needy.

The Londoner, who read English and sociology at Manchester University, told me: "I was working with sports companies like Reebok and Dunhill Golf, signing up the faces of celebrities.

"If someone won a competition to spend an afternoon with a celebrity, I would organise it. I brought children from all over Europe to play football with famous footballers.

"It was fun and enjoyable, but I didn't feel I was contributing to the world. I didn't really know what I wanted to do. It was not satisfying.

"It was something that needed to be done for business, but for me personally, it felt I was on the wrong path. It wasn't what I was put on this earth to do."

In her spare time Jo volunteered in a non-Jewish soup kitchen, food packing for Gift, visiting Jewish Care homes and helping with kids from Sderot who had been brought over by Tikun, founded by Liverpudlian Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt.

"As time wore on I knew that was what I needed to be doing," she said. "I used to think, I wish I could get paid for this."

Jo needed a fresh start. Quitting her job and moving home, she went to Sri Lanka for a month to work in a home for Down Syndrome children.

She said: "It was such a nice time for me on a personal level. I was on my own where it was very peaceful. After the kids went to bed at 8.30pm I could just read or listen to a shiur, or do nothing.

"It was an interesting and good time for me. It gave me a chance to re-evaluate myself after I quit my job and moved out of my house. It was a real period of change. I didn't know what the next step was.

"It was good for me to take stock of things with no phone or internet, nothing like that. I was just in the middle of a village. It was good for me to have that peace and just sit with things.

"It was nice to listen to a shiur and read and just be."

She added: "I used to learn at the Jewish Learning Exchange. I'm not religious, but I do learn as much as I can most days. I had shiurim on my iPad."

Back in London, Jo was seeking paid work in the voluntary sector.

She said: "I was going for loads of interviews with big corporate charities. But it wasn't what I wanted to do. I didn't really know the Jewish community's charity scene.

"I had volunteered for Tikun, so I wrote to them to ask if they could let me know of any jobs going."

Tikun replied that they were looking for someone to run a volunteering project part-time.

Jo needed a full-time job, but decided to go to Tikun part-time on a freelance basis until they found somebody to run the project or until she found a full-time position.

She said: "It escalated from there. I have never left. For four years I have headed their volunteering department full time, setting up and running all their volunteering projects."

One of Tikun Olam's (Tikun's volunteering arm) biggest projects is Light up a Life in which, last year, 600 mainly Jewish volunteers were engaged in 200 projects during the week between Christmas and New Year.

Jo said: "We did everything from spending time at elderly care homes to serving meals to the homeless. We donated a large amount of chocolate to local hospitals, hospices and children's centres.

"Families and their children would make cards, presents and cakes and deliver them to the emergency services to say, 'Thank you' for what they do.

"This year we also worked with the Holocaust Survivors Centre. Our volunteers ranged from children to the elderly. One lady in her 80s had more energy than most of my friends."

Jo, a keen cook, set up a cooking club through which participants cook food for the homeless.

The food is cooked either in private homes or in homes run by the Jewish Blind and Disabled, Rela Goldhill Lodge home for adults with disabilities and JAMI (Jewish Association for the Mentally Ill) House day centre.

She is currently in the process of setting up a cooking programme with Kisharon special needs school.

She says: "It gives people with disabilities the opportunity to also be the volunteers. It's empowering for them.

"That's a big part of the project, giving them confidence and purpose.

"It's about the community coming together whatever their ability or disability, all doing something together for the homeless."

She is also setting up a scheme for the homeless to make greeting cards so they can earn money for themselves.

In 2012, Jo was nominated for her services to charity to run with the Olympic torch.

She has definitely found her niche in the volunteering sector.

She says: "This feels right for me."

© 2014 Jewish Telegraph