Rene Gould’s life was a classic example of voluntary service, without fuss, and without any expectation of recognition.

Both the Olympics and the Paralympics generated huge excitement in the United Kingdom. Thousands attended the events, including the two very dramatic final ceremonies. Millions watched on television.

When the Paralympics ended, and the country began to return to normality, there was much discussion not only of the remarkable achievements of the athletes but also of many other aspects of the legacy left by the two sets of Games. In my “Letter” of July 29, written just before the Olympics, I remarked that it would be good to believe that the 2012 Games would be remembered for goodwill, idealism and hope. Now that we can look back on them, I believe we can honestly claim that this proved to be the case.

Certainly, one of the most notable things about the whole Olympic events was the number of volunteers who were involved in important, behind-the-scenes roles. There were thousands, and their contribution, by common consent, was enormous. What they did was crucial to making everything friendly and welcoming, something that was widely commented on by visitors and participants alike.

It was indeed a graphic, and most encouraging, reminder of the important role which volunteers can play.

Crucial role of volunteers

For obvious reasons, the role of volunteers during the Olympics and Paralympics was noticed throughout the whole country. For me, it served as an important reminder of the fact that volunteers play an important, indeed crucial, role in our society as a whole, and not just when there are major events which highlight what they do. The reminder was particularly significant because, during the Olympic period, a remarkable 91-year-old woman resident in the village where I live, died. She was a classic example of voluntary service, offered during many years, without fuss, and without any expectation of recognition.

Rene Gould was notable over many years for having outside her home a stall from which she sold bric-à-brac, to raise money for charitable causes. In recent years, the money had gone to help the local parish church maintain its grade one medieval building. Rene’s success in fund-raising was phenomenal. As a friend of mine remarked, in a tribute that was read at Rene’s funeral: “The casual passer-by may have thought a bric-à-brac stall like this would bring in the odd pound or two. But week in, week out, she would be banking between 30 and 50 pounds”. As he pointed out, over a year this amounted to at least £ 1,500. This local fund-raising was a crucial door opener for grants from charitable foundations, and over the years Rene’s efforts opened the way to well over £ 250,000 in grant aid.

The bric-à-brac stall was by no means the first example of the voluntary work that Rene did over a very long period in the village, voluntary work that was quite unknown to recent village residents. Soon after we moved here, over 40 years ago, she became actively involved in a small team of volunteers running a nearly new shop, to raise funds for a new play group, and then for Cubs, Brownies, Scouts, Guides and other village causes, as well as for the Red Cross. These were just some examples of her tireless, and unsung, work for the community.

Rene never asked for recognition, but it was good to see her work recognised nevertheless. Some years ago the Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire presented her with a certificate for her charity work. Later she received an invitation to one of the Queen’s Garden Parties at Buckingham Palace — and greatly enjoyed that day.

She was ill for a few weeks towards the end of her life, and the bric-à-brac stall remained closed. It seemed as if an essential element of the life of the village had vanished from the scene, and so in a real sense it had.

Many people attended Rene’s funeral, and were reminded of the great variety of service that she had given to the village over very many years.

At the age of 91, death is, obviously, not a tragedy. Rather, it provides an opportunity to remember, with gratitude, the person whose funeral is taking place. That was certainly how Rene’s death was perceived.

The work of the volunteers at the Olympics and Paralympics provided an excellent reminder of the importance to society of contributions made, behind the scenes. At our village level, Rene’s funeral provided a similarly excellent reminder of the great contribution that “ordinary” people can make — and a reminder that they are very far from being ordinary.

Email: bill.kirkman@gmail.com