Lauren Hayes shares her volunteering experience with Operation Florian

Being a single mother of two and working full time as a firefighter for Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, there is a fair number of things to juggle just doing day-to-day life. When I first heard about Operation Florian and the projects that the charity is involved in, I knew that it was something I had to be involved with in one way or another, regardless of how chaotic home life can be sometimes.

Applying for the trip to Zimbabwe in April 2024 was a no-brainer for me. After spending years working alongside various charities in West Africa, and refugee camps in Europe I was no stranger to being in new environments and working amongst different cultures, but this was the most fantastic opportunity to help support an incredible charity and also utilise a skill set that I have obtained by working as a full-time firefighter. I adore my job and feel very lucky to have the role that I do, so to be able to help others in any small way was something I wanted to be involved with. 

Joining the team at the airport for the first time was somewhat daunting as I was very aware of the wealth of experienced firefighters that I was about to go on a trip with and did have a real sense of imposter syndrome. The way in which I was made to feel by the team was in fact the total opposite. The warmth and camaraderie felt amongst this group of smiley strangers will be something I will always be grateful for. They put me at ease straight away, even though I was new to the team I felt like one of them straight away. Operation Florian has a wonderful way of mixing teams to include both new and more experienced members and the balance worked wonderfully. 

Lauren and students in Bulawayo

The journey was long but was a really lovely way to get settled into what the next few weeks were about to bring. I asked 18 hours’ worth of questions to my fellow team members which I am sure they loved! Getting to build relationships with one another was a pretty vital part of the trip as you do spend a lot of time with one another and working in sometimes quite tough conditions, so I was really pleased for having had the opportunity to start to build these relationships from the get-go. 

Once arriving in Bulawayo, it was a fantastic and beautiful part of the world, there was no doubt about it. The people of Zimbabwe made us feel nothing but welcome and it was a smooth transition throughout. I do believe it was overwhelmingly evident the years of relationship building and work with the local government that had gone before to make the trip even possible. The leadership team of Operation Florian really are the unsung heroes who work tirelessly in the background before the trip and then during in the background sorting out all the logistics, so it moves as smoothly as possible. They go under the radar but honestly, the success of the projects would be absolutely nothing without their tireless work. 

The day-to-day routine of getting to the main fire station in Bulawayo and joining your students, taking the register and getting stuck into the training program was both physically and mentally demanding for both the students and us as volunteers. The extensive BA and RTC programs being run across the two weeks have a huge amount of content structured into the weeks, with at times very limited resources. This meant that it was vital we as a team worked well on our feet and had some real creative ideas on what to do with the training and how the students could get the most out of the courses. The heart of the mission is always to leave the students with more knowledge than before we came- this we achieved. Watching the students flourish after each week was such a privilege to be a part of. The firefighters that we worked and trained with during our time there training was nothing short of inspirational.

I could write a book on the precious memories I made during the trip, the laughs we had, and how I not only was able to teach and impart knowledge to the students but also be taught so much along the way. Spending time with an amazing group of volunteers, the firefighters of Zimbabwe and the locals was something I will always carry with me with such fond memories. I know without a shadow of a doubt I want to maintain a connection with Operation Florian for future trips and fundraising events. The work captured across social media is a small fraction of the extensive work the charity (and board members) do. I would implore anyone who is considering getting involved in the work the charity does to do it! It really was a life-changing experience and a cause that should not be kept quiet. Support in any way you can, you won’t regret it.  

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