It is a heartwarming story that renews your faith in mankind - 73-year-old Michael Jaques from Harrogate has been reunited with his long-lost family after 27 agonising years, thanks to the kind-hearted efforts of his volunteer befriender.
Juliet Walters volunteers for Harrogate’s Supporting Older People charity, which delivers a wide array of important work to tackle loneliness and isolation in our communities. This includes the befriender scheme, where volunteers are matched to an older person to offer support and friendship.
Juliet said her friendship with Michael has been a joy for them both, and she was devastated to find out that he had lost touch with his brothers and sisters for nearly three decades due to a combination of ill health and his mobile phone contacts being erased.
“It’s just me and Alfie,” Michael said when he first met Juliet, referring to his beloved rescue dog who keeps him company. Determined to change this, Juliet was moved to take action and begin her search - pulling in the help of her niece Rachel, whose detective work managed to track down Michael’s brother Derek on social media, which then led the way to six other siblings being traced.
Michael said: “I nearly fainted when I found out that Juliet had managed to find them. I am a different person now, this has given me a new lease of life.
“I am so much happier in myself - I never used to go out, I would go from one day to the next without seeing or talking to anybody, before I met Juliet and found my brothers and sisters.
“My life has completely changed, it is a thousand times better, and I can’t thank Juliet enough for everything that she has done for me. Our friendship means a lot to me - we have a good laugh, and she helps me a lot. She has made a massive difference to my life.”
Since reconnecting with his siblings, Michael said his mobility has much improved, and he now has a spring in his step.
He said: “I just feel so much better, it made me feel really depressed when I was on my own, but that’s all changed. Seeing my siblings after so many years was so overwhelming, I started crying a bit, but it was absolutely brilliant.”
Michael was one of 10 children and he was born in Shoeburyness, but as children the family moved around Southend-on-Sea in Essex.
Some 40 years ago, Michael moved up to Harrogate and married his wife, Margaret, who was a nurse. Michael was a self-employed plasterer who built his own home in Harrogate and had a strong career.
Michael and Margaret didn’t have any children, and after seven years of marriage Margaret died of cancer. Michael was totally committed to Margaret and never went on to meet anyone else.
Juliet said: “I asked Michael the ages of his siblings and discovered that he had a brother, Derek, who was younger than him and in his sixties. As Michael and I chatted away, I asked him whether he would like me to try and find Derek, although I couldn’t promise anything. Michael’s face lit up, and he said he would like that, and we sat and listed some key things about his brother that I could use to try and find him.
“As I’m not particularly social media savvy, I asked my super sleuth niece Rachel if she could try and find Michael’s brother and gave her some basic information. It was incredible, within a couple of days Rachel contacted me and said, ‘I think I’ve found him,’ and gave me a contact number for Derek.
“Not wanting to build up my hopes too much, I telephoned Derek and asked him a lot of questions in order to verify he was Michael’s long-lost brother. Derek was very emotional on the telephone and said he, along with his other brothers and sisters, had been looking for Michael for 27 years.
“Once I’d verified with Michael the information Derek had given me, I told him Derek had been found, still living in Southend-on-Sea, and that he had another six brothers and sisters still alive.
“The family are now all in touch by phone daily, and life for Michael is good. He’s happier, he now has a big family, his health is improving, and he has lots to look forward to.”
After 27 long years, an emotional reunion happened very quickly once Michael was put back in touch with his brothers and sisters. Juliet said: “Phone numbers were exchanged, and his older sister Dot phoned him straight away – it was just incredible. I’ve never known Michael to smile so much.
“Within two weeks, Derek and Dot came up to Harrogate for a couple of nights. I met them, and Michael invited a few people to his house and we had a little party. It was just marvellous, and you’d never have thought any time had passed between them. Another brother and sister are also arranging to visit.
“It has been amazing telling Michael’s story to my friends and family, and seeing what a positive and uplifting effect it has had on everyone.
“It has been so incredibly rewarding for me to see the difference that this has made, and I felt so happy that I could do something so positive and life-changing for someone.”
Give the gift of volunteering and change someone's life
Having seen the huge difference that being reunited with his family has made to Michael’s life, Juliet has called for more Harrogate residents to give the gift of volunteering and sign up to Supporting Older People’s befriending scheme.
Even just taking the time to sit and chat could make the world of difference to someone who is feeling isolated. Juliet said: “You can’t underestimate the positive impact befriending has on people who are lonely. Having that contact and making new friends for both parties is just such a positive experience. We’ve all got something to learn from each other.
“Having someone you can pick up the phone to for a chat when you are feeling low is priceless. Our community in Harrogate is generally very caring, but people have busy lives and don’t often think about people who live on their own and who they don’t really know. That’s why raising awareness of the work of Supporting Older People is just so important as it’s about connecting people with people.
"There’s something incredibly positive about giving something of yourself for no obvious return. However, the return for helping someone in need and making a positive difference to someone’s life is very satisfying. Volunteering is not onerous, just one hour per week, and fits in around busy lives.”
How you can volunteer for Supporting Older People
Supporting Older People is looking for more kind-hearted people to become a volunteer befriender.
Emphasising the difference that it can make to an older person, the charity’s home visiting and activities manager, Julia Lightfoot, said: “Volunteer befrienders are a lifeline to people experiencing isolation. A friendly face on a weekly basis can make a huge difference in alleviating loneliness.
“Having a volunteer visiting can have a really positive impact on a person’s health, improving their self-esteem and confidence. In my role, I understand that loneliness and isolation are massive issues in our community.
“The number of referrals I receive is increasing. We ask for an hour a week to make a real difference to someone’s life.”
For more information about the befriending service, contact Julia Lightfoot on 01423 531490, email Julia@supportingolderpeople.org.uk, or visit the Supporting Older People website: supportingolderpeople.org.uk.