I arrived at Hull University in the Autumn of 1991 to study Social Policy and Social Work. I signed up to join HUSSO, the student community action group, at the Freshers’ Fair after hearing the Chair, Martin Dougan, speak to all the new students.
At that time HUSSO had a big profile, comparable to that of the Athletic Union who coordinated all the University sports clubs. It had around 800 student regularly involved in 35 weekly community projects.
As a fresher, I had no idea of how significant getting involved in HUSSO would prove to be. Looking back, I think it changed my life for these three reasons:
1. It exposed me to reality
The HUSSO project I signed up for was Dock House, the base of the Hull Homeless and Rootless Project. Early Saturday evening, and often Sunday too, I would drive one of the battered HUSSO minibuses (with an incredibly wobbly gear stick) down to the docks with 4 or 5 other volunteers in varying states of nervousness. As a 19 year old student, it was an intimidating place to visit.
When we arrived, the manager would shout out “Stooooodents are ‘ere”. The staff would give us the keys and leave us to run the place for 2 hours.
Our role was mainly to chat to people as they watched TV and drank soup or very sweet tea. We also often had to get involved in the issues, arguments and dramas which inevitably broke out.
Conversations were often started by being asked what subjects we were studying. I’ll never forget the reactions when one student replied ‘Criminology’. It took quite a while to assure everyone that this did not mean that she wanted to become a Police officer!
Looking back, these conversations taught me a lot. As a southern, middle-class student, I learnt a huge amount about the realities of poverty and disadvantage. It also taught me about being real and not pretending to be someone I wasn’t.
HUSSO exposed me to realities which were discomforting and which took me out of my comfort zone. But they influenced my thinking, and politics, far more than all the theoretical arguments on campus.
2. It gave unique responsibilities
At that time HUSSO ran a wide range of projects for children, older people and people with disabilities. It was the largest voluntary organisation in East Yorkshire
HUSSO helped kids with their reading, ran a babysitting service for single parents, took blind people to the pub, ran activities for kids staying at the Women’s Refuge, took disabled people swimming, led educational classes at the prison, ran football coaching and organised befriending for hundreds of isolated older people.
Every term, we ran big parties for over 100 older people, many of whom used wheel-chairs. Ensuring they were all picked up in an expanded fleet of begged and borrowed minibuses was a feat of logistics in itself! Probably our most complex project was the 6-week Playscheme we ran every summer for vulnerable children referred by social services.
In 1992, HUSSO won a prestigious Queen’s Gold Award for Voluntary Service, presented at Buckingham Palace.
After getting more and more involved, in my third year I was elected HUSSO’s Chair. This was a full-time job, working alongside the other ‘sabbatical officers’ who ran the Student Union. Running HUSSO at the age of 22 was daunting to say the least, but we had a great team in support and it was one of the best jobs I have ever had.
One big factor was Mo Cookson who was employed by the Student Union as HUSSO’s Secretary for over 25 years. Mo’s humour, experience and good sense helped generations of students not to panic nor take themselves too seriously! Later, along with HUSSO’s founder Derek Forster, she was honoured with an honorary degree.
3. It showed what can be achieved without huge resources
Hull student Derek Forster set up the Hull University Social Services Organisation at a meeting of the Christian Union in 1961. It was a simple idea: to connect students to need in the local community. The first project was building a garden at the Blind Institute on Beverley Road.
Recently, I read a thread on the Hull University alumni Facebook group where hundreds of former student recalled their HUSSO experiences. 60 years since its launch, many great memories were shared about children they helped with reading, older people they befriended and countless acts of practical service.
Reading these, it struck me again how much good has come about because of HUSSO in the last 60 years. And probably the best things was not the large, high-profile events but the thousands upon thousands of largely hidden, one-to-one encounters it facilitated between students and local people.
HUSSO became one of the largest student organisations of its type in the country but even at its height it was run on a relative shoe-string with just 2 staff members and a tiny budget. It stands as a testimony of what can be achieved with vision, energy and commitment.
From its base in the Student Union, HUSSO gave experiences which connected students to the real world. It occupied a different space to the mad-cap fundraising exploits of RAG or the issue-based politics of the Campaigns Office. HUSSO provided generations of students an opportunity to do something practical, tangible and local in response to poverty and social injustice.
It is not exaggerating to say that HUSSO left an indelible mark on my life. Since leaving Hull, I have worked for the last 25 years in homeless services. I now work as a rough sleeping adviser to the government and specialise in how faith and community groups address homelessness.
I know I speak for many others when I say that HUSSO gave me far, far more than I gave to it. Alongside thousands of others, I am profoundly grateful to have been a part of such a great story which has inspired so much fantastic work over the last 60 years.
To mark HUSSO’s 60th anniversary, the Hull Student Union is gathering stories from former volunteers. Click on this link to send in your memories. Please share with former HUSSO members.