8 November 2023

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Waltraut’s story

Ninety three years young: Petts Wood pensioner vouches for value of volunteering

Volunteer Petts Wood Waltraut Gilchrist

The 1,000-strong army of volunteers that helps keep St Christopher’s functioning is as diverse as the boroughs we serve, but perhaps few are as old, long-serving and dedicated as Waltraut Gilchrist.

Ever since she retired as a chemistry technician at the old grammar school in Bickley in 1989, Waltraut has given up her time to help out in various of our 23 charity shops.

Now 93, Waltraut is looking to build on the more than three decades of service, still driven by the same motivation that started during her childhood in wartime Germany.

“I suppose it is about helping people. I have seen so many unhappy people who needed help and I got through, so I still feel an urge to help people. In the same way as I can’t bear to throw food away because we were so hungry at times.”

The times she is referring to were truly terrifying for the young Waltraut who was brought up in East Pomerania in the far east of Germany, close to Poland.

After her mother’s premature death, Waltraut and her sister were sent to boarding school, first in Potsdam and then in what was Czechoslovakia. Once on the week-long journey home the train came under fire.

When Germany was divided after the war her father who’d been taken prisoner by the British, was on the West while Waltraut and the rest of the family were in the Russian East. She escaped to the West as a 14-year-old, before emigrating to the UK in 1954 where she met her husband Thomas, and they settled in Orpington.

Waltraut has lived in the same house there since 1960. Widowed six years ago, she loves to keep active, tending to her large garden and making the weekly two bus plus walking journey to the shop at Petts Wood.

“I’ve been in all sorts of shops over the years and my husband used to go around pubs collecting money they had raised for St Christopher’s.

“I’ve always done whatever the managers asked me to do but never handled any cash.”

Recently, Waltraut is kept very busy when she volunteers every Thursday sorting the many books that are donated at the Petts Wood shop. She says it’s a highlight of her week.

“I really look forward to my Thursdays as I am living by myself now and there’s nothing much happening. I really enjoy the work though I am exhausted afterwards.”

Waltraut is also something of an ambassador for the hospice and the many opportunities it can provide people with.

“I have spread the word. I am always telling people how good this shop is so they come and shop here and how good it is to volunteer. You are doing something that helps somebody and is of help.”

With four children, ten grandchildren (including one, Nathan, who plays cricket for Kent) and two great grandchildren, Waitraut has a busy family life but also manages to find the time to study history and science at u3a.

Waltraut says she has no plans to retire – for the second time – and says she’d encourage anyone, whatever their age, to volunteer for St Christopher’s.

Discover all the many volunteering opportunities at St Christopher’s and how you can get involved in supporting the hospice in the role that suits you.

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