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From China to Bow, meet the volunteer determined to make her mark in the coronavirus relief effort

PUBLISHED: 10:00 24 May 2020

Emily Hodson has been involved with several volunteering projects in Tower Hamlets since returning from China earlier this year, including delivering hot meals to those who are shielding. Picture: Emily Hodson

Emily Hodson has been involved with several volunteering projects in Tower Hamlets since returning from China earlier this year, including delivering hot meals to those who are shielding. Picture: Emily Hodson

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Emily Hodson was not expecting to be back in Bow so soon.

Emily Hodson has been involved with several volunteering projects in Tower Hamlets since returning from China earlier this year, including assisting as a steward after Victoria Park was re-opened. Picture: Emily HodsonEmily Hodson has been involved with several volunteering projects in Tower Hamlets since returning from China earlier this year, including assisting as a steward after Victoria Park was re-opened. Picture: Emily Hodson

The 28-year-old left Tower Hamlets early last year to move to Chongqing, China with boyfriend Ash, who had been posted to the city as part of his government job.

They had barely celebrated a year in their new surroundings before being advised to return to the UK in February, amidst growing fears over coronavirus in China.

At this point the virus was little more than a passing point of interest in the UK, though concerns over its presence in China meant that UK nationals in the country were advised to come home.

Emily says that even though she was in that category, she had no idea how dire the situation would become when she landed back on English soil in February: “I booked a weekend away with my friends for May, not realising how things would develop. Luckily we’re going to be able to move it.”

Those behind the Those behind the "What can we do?" page, including Emily Hodson, are running a challenge encouraging people to commit acts of kindness. Follow the steps to participate. Picture: Emily Hodson

The return from Chongqing was sudden, with the 28-year-old “sad to leave friends” with little notice.

Emily admits that she needed a period of readjustment after she and Ash returned to Bow, but once settled she set about immersing herself in the effort against Covid.

With the same enthusiasm as was required to integrate into Chinese life, Emily developed a “say yes” policy to every opportunity.

As she explains: “I have time and want to help. I’ve always been as involved as possible in community projects as my mum worked for a charity.”

This genetic desire to help has resulted in Emily having an unenviable schedule.

The project to which she dedicates most time is the What Can We Do? online hub. Founded by social sector workers Florence Waller-Carr and Ümran Avni, this forum brings together all the ways people can support the UK’s Covid-19 relief effort.

After joining forces with the founders, Emily now crowdsources for fresh initiatives to place on the forum.

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An expanded team of six now meet virtually every Wednesday night to discuss plans on how the improve the hub, with Emily determined that this be a long-term project. “We are going to look to reposition ourselves once this crisis reduces in its impact – ultimately the question is, how can we create a just and fair future?

“So many grassroots projects have sprung up – we want to capitalise on that momentum.”

A current priority is Mental Health Awareness Week. As well as offering to support groups who were running events last week, What Can We Do? recently launched its own kindness initiative – the #COVAKchallenge.

The challenge is simple: Choose an appropriate act of kindness, share it on social media using the above hashtag, then nominate three friends to do the same.

Emily is no stranger to an act of kindness. Beyond her work with What Can We Do?, she is also a befriender, who phones two Tower Hamlets residents twice a week for a chat.

This interaction is so important, says the volunteer, particularly as one local is over the age of 70, with the other shielding on medical grounds.

Emily explains how the risk of isolation drove her on to spare a few minutes a week. “With the elderly, there is a huge difference between those who can use technology and those who cannot. The biggest fear is that people will be lonely.”

Amidst her various obligations, Emily also managed to complete a walking marathon for charity by walking the 26.2 miles around Victoria Park across four days.

She split the £752 proceeds across two charities, each with special significance. Half of the money raised went to Reducing the Risk of Domestic Abuse, a charity with whom her parents have long-established links.

The other half went to Help Refugees, an organisation which reflects Emily’s global perspective. “Ultimately, coronavirus is a world problem”, she says.

In three months, Emily has done more than most could even fathom, demonstrating a huge dedication to the Tower Hamlets community in the process.

She and Ash intend to return to China when safe to do so, each feeling a sense of unfinished business. After all, the power of the internet means that Emily can easily continue her work with What Can We Do? online. She intends to do just that.

But while she remains in Bow, she is determined to make her mark in the battle against coronavirus.


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