Thursday 7th January, 2021

Local Hero Ken retires after 40 years as volunteer

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Ken Sparkes: Local Hero and Romsey Mill volunteer for over 40 years!

 A Cambridge man who has been volunteering at one of the city’s charity shops for more than 40 years has just retired!

 Ken Sparkes, who turned 88 in December 2020, has formally retired after more than four decades of service at the Romsey Mill Charity Shop on Mill Road.

 Ken first volunteered in the 1970s, when the shop was in premises on Thoday Street, having been set up by St Martin’s Church under name Rom Church. Ken’s wife, Audrey, was the manageress at the time. When the shop then became part of Romsey Mill in the 1980s, Ken and Audrey both continued volunteering and did so until Audrey died ten years ago.

Ken had originally intended to formally retire as a volunteer in December, after his 88th birthday, but the restrictions brought about by Covid-19 meant that he was unable to mark the occasion with a stint at the shop in Mill Road, so it was in the Spring when he last volunteered at the shop.

Speaking of his decision to retire, Ken said: “I have loved every minute of it. But my family have advised me that the best thing to do is to look after myself, so I have been very careful.”

During his 40 years as a volunteer at the shop, Ken has used his wide range of experience and skills as a handyman and electrical tester to good effect.

Ken said: “I’ve done electrical testing and repairs on all sorts of things that come into the shop. Some of the donations were not too bad, but others had not been cleaned down, with bits of food in toasters etc.; or were not working. So, I used to sort them all out, so they were like new."

 “I loved problem solving, with many of the things that came in. I used to do the repairs in the shed in my garden. Because I did it for so long, I had spares for nearly everything electrical. Anything serviceable, I would do what I could to save it, and give it a longer life. Children’s toys with a wheel missing, or that weren’t working properly, I’d fix them and send them back up to the shop.”

Cambridge boy Ken went to school in the city, attending Brunswick School and St George’s East School. He also worked for several Cambridge companies, including Pye, BICC Cables, Flinders and Mowlems, in roles ranging from stores assistant, handyman and delivery driver to Branch Manager.

Ken has also spent time in uniform over the years, initially serving as a member of the RAF’ Bomb Disposal Squad, based in Lincolnshire, from age 18-20, then with the Auxiliary Fire Service in Cambridge. He also volunteered with the St John’s Ambulance, where he was Area Staff Officer for Cambridge Cadets for over 20 years.

 Ken has been an active presence in the Romsey area of Cambridge for over 60 years.

He said: “Whenever I walk down Mill Road, I have a smile on my face.”

“I always see people that I know, as I’ve lived here so long, and everyone is so familiar. I’ve known them for years, and I’ve helped most of them in some way or other. If someone’s in trouble and needs help, I’ll do whatever is needed. “

“Because I knew people so well, and wanted to help, I would end up doing odd handyman jobs for folks, when collecting and delivering for the shop.

Ken’s amazing contribution to Cambridge life has twice been formally acknowledged, first in September 2006 when he was awarded a certificate from the Mayor of Cambridge for his service to the community; and then in October 2014, when we won a Pride of Cambridge Unsung Hero award.

Thinking about what he was going to miss the most in retirement, Ken said: “I will miss having something different to do every day; and seeing so many different people to chat to. There’s always someone you know – and many who I’ve known for decades.”

“I will miss it. But now is the right time to take a break. I know that I have to pull my horns in and do what I must to look after myself.”

Ken is looking to spend more time listening to music and clearing out his old shed! A keen walker, Ken enjoys going on local walks with his family, as his son and two daughters and their families all live in or close to Cambridge.

To mark the occasion of Ken’s retirement, and acknowledge his amazing contribution as a volunteer, Romsey Mill’s Chief Executive, Neil Perry, and Diane Hicks, the charity’s Operations and Resources Manager, paid Ken a socially distanced visit just before Christmas. They presented Ken with a festive hamper, that he put aside to quarantine for 72 hours in the shed that he has used four decades to repair and restore hundreds of items donated to the charity shop.

Neil Perry, Romsey Mill’s Chief Executive said: “Ken is an absolute marvel, and a much-loved character, both by everyone connected with Romsey Mill and within the local community. He is a true gentleman and a local hero.”

“As soon as we are able, we will arrange a proper Romsey Mill celebration and retirement party for Ken, where more people can come and say, ‘thank you’. But until then, we wanted to leave him with a token of our love and appreciation for him and all that he has done.”



Ken Sparkes (centre) with presentation hamper, and Romsey Mill’s Operations and Resources Manager, Diane Hicks (left) and chief Executive, Neil Perry (right). All pictured in front of Ken’s shed, where he used to repair and fix items for the Charity Shop.

Ken Sparkes (centre) with presentation hamper, and Romsey Mill’s Operations and Resources Manager, Diane Hicks (left) and chief Executive, Neil Perry (right). All pictured in front of Ken’s shed, where he used to repair and fix items for the Charity Shop.