Eric Smith

Branch Chairman of SSAFA Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan

Eric Smith

Branch Chairman of SSAFA Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan

Retired BT Manager Eric Smith is Chairman of Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan branch of SSAFA. Though he does not have direct experience of being in the military, he was inspired to join because of his son who served in the Territorial Army.

“I heard a presentation by a SSAFA caseworker at a club I belong to for retired business people. It struck so many chords, as my son had returned uninjured and undamaged from a tour to Afghanistan. My immediate reaction to the talk was that if some of the things that the caseworker described, happened to my son, I'd want somebody there to be able to support him as well. I decided there and then that if I was accepted as a caseworker it would be a good thing for me to do.

“I started as a caseworker which was very interesting. Then, after a couple of years, the previous chairman reached the end of his term and wished to concentrate on casework again. I was asked by the committee whether I'd be prepared to take the chairman's role on, and I agreed.

“I’m in my second year now and I'm still heavily involved in casework too, due to a lack of numbers within the branch.

“I spent most of my career in IT, so that’s partly why I was considered a good fit for the role - because I was adept at using all the SSAFA systems. But fundamentally, I think they wanted me because I'm an organised person.

“I'm not ex-military, but I've got experience as a manager in large companies where managing teams and projects is the norm, so I hope I’m a good fit for the Chairman role.”

I have accountability for the branch

“I’ve not been in the post very long, and due to Covid-19 these are very strange times, so it is hard to define the role exactly. But essentially, I ‘keep an eye’ on everything going on, encourage our volunteers and have accountability for the branch.

“For me, it's making sure everybody is doing their role, have got the support they need, and if they are having problems, they've got somebody they can come to and talk about it to see how they can resolve it. And of course I work very closely with our Branch Secretary.

“Our Branch Secretary, like many other branches is the glue holding everything together, doing the admin and doing it extremely well I have to say. In my opinion the chairman’s role is more about oversight and trying to keep things together, keeping things moving, keeping people informed and ensuring enough volunteers are in the branch to handle the workload.

“I’m also an advocate for our branch among the wider SSAFA network. We are increasingly having meetings with other branches where I can showcase what we’ve been doing as well as try to get ideas from other people about how they're doing things successfully, and then try and bring it into the branch.

“When things change again, and we’re able to meet, I'm hoping to get out and do presentations to local clubs and volunteer organisations to try and explain what SSAFA does, and get more community backing.”

Each case has got a little win in it somewhere

“Cardiff is a fairly compact city, but it's like any other large, admin-centred city and has a lot of business and finance institutions together with a lot of Council and Welsh government departments. It also has a very large student population.

“The city has a long maritime tradition which is reflected in the work that SSAFA does with the Seamen’s Charities. There are some very poor areas, and some very wealthy areas in Cardiff.

“Cardiff has a large prison population, mostly low-level offenders with, unfortunately, many ex-service people; SSAFA case workers are active in supporting them in non-Covid times.

“The issues we deal with are very varied. There are a lot of cases where veterans have mental health challenges. There is a lot of homelessness within Cardiff and quite a few are veterans. You may have seen the pictures on national TV, where the main shopping street essentially had a sea of tents along it. But the majority of cases that we seem to be handling are still helping older people with their needs to improve their quality of life.

“Every single case and person we help seems to be so different. Some cases are extremely frustrating, but each one has got a little win in it somewhere. And it's just a nice feeling that you've been able to help somebody to get their problem sorted out.

“In some cases, you can go as far as saying casework has saved their life because they had been in such distress not knowing where to go. That is particularly true dealing with cases of PTSD, debt or family breakdowns.”

You're doing something worthwhile instead of twiddling your thumbs or looking for your next holiday

“At the moment, my biggest challenge and concern as Chairman is not having enough caseworkers to help the people who come to us, but we are starting to see more join which is a particular joy to me. Without them, things could go deteriorate at the branch, so it’s great to see the change. Covid has brought the volunteering out in people, so we are beginning to see the positive effects of that.

“What keeps me going is knowing our branch is giving people some hope and doing good. We’re making a difference in the world. And I am proud of our volunteers.

“I'm very proud of the work that SSAFA does. It's just the satisfaction of knowing you're doing something worthwhile instead of twiddling your thumbs or looking for your next holiday. You're doing something useful. Once you've given up work, it can be difficult to get a focus. But this is a wonderful focus, because you're doing good in the world, and that's quite something these days, knowing you've helped people. That's the real key, for me.

“Anyone thinking about volunteering for SSAFA, give it a try. There are different roles you can do which will suit you and your lifestyle, so I would always say go for it.”

That's what the chairman should be doing, bringing branches together, ironing out problems that occur.

“There are several qualities I think a SSAFA Chairman needs to have: they need to be organised, technically capable, empathetic, a good communicator at all levels and motivational.

“I get on with and can talk to most people, and I’ve done so all through my career. I’m used to dealing with difficult, awkward situations, defusing them and reaching consensus. That's what the chairman should be doing, bringing branches together, ironing out problems that occur.

“Having a positive mindset and refusing to give in helps. ‘It needs to be done, let's just get on with it’.

“You don’t need to have been in the military to volunteer for SSAFA either. What comes first is ‘do you want to help people?’.”

“I mentioned my son earlier – he thinks the work I am doing at SSAFA is great. He now tells the people he serves with in the TA, 'The old man is doing SSAFA, if you need any help, let him know'. It’s good to see the message getting out there.”