ACT News

A life spent giving: Alan Jessop

Amid the hustle and bustle of the city he sits stoically, perched atop his stool, with gentle eyes watching life go by. People rushing to work, rushing to lunch, rushing to grab some shopping, most people notice him but very few stop.

Perhaps it's the collection box, firmly gripped in one hand, that scares them off, but for 27 years Alan Jessop has been a fixture of the city, diligently collecting donations for charity on behalf of the Salvation Army.

At a time of life when most of us would be thinking of sleeping in until lunchtime, Alan gets up at 5am three days a week to do his collections.

He is 85.

So why does he do it? We went to his home in suburban Palmerston at the end of last year to find out.

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We sit around the table of his family room, which is covered by dozens of packaged grocery items.

"They're for food parcels that we're doing for the needy for Christmas," Alan explains.

Sitting next to him is wife Joy, the woman who has been with Alan for more than 60 years from when they first met, and as we ask the question "why", Joy volunteers a two-word answer.

"He's mad," she says with a laugh.

But Alan retains his dignified expression and, with a gentle but serious tone, explains that there is a deeper reason.

"Canberra looks so affluent from the outside that we don't see the suffering that goes on underneath. Doing the collections is one way I can help," he says.

The help provided by Alan's volunteering has been enormous. Since he began collecting he has raised more than $4 million. He is now so well known that local artist Barbara van der Linden painted a portrait of him for the Faces of Canberra exhibition two years ago as part of the Centenary of Canberra.

The large portrait now adorns the family room, sensitively capturing Alan's compassionate demeanour.

A few years before the portrait, in 2011, Alan was honoured by being named ACT Local Hero of the Year in the Australian of the Year Awards, but while grateful, he responded in a typically humble fashion.

"I was surprised to win as there were many others who deserved the award," Alan says.

"I do the collections because of the Salvos' good work, with the drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in Fyshwick and helping people with food and shelter and with money if they can't pay their power bills."

Alan starts collecting at the Civic bus interchange at 6.30am to catch the morning commuters and later shifts to the Canberra Centre for the lunchtime crowds. He works until 2.30pm and the job can be tough.

"Thousands of people walk past and that can be painful. Sometimes you start to wonder when the next person will stop," he says with a sigh.

"The cutbacks in the public service have reduced donations because people worry that they must hang onto every cent they have."

But then there are moments that make it feel worthwhile.

"Saturdays are great because that's when families come in and you'll get parents giving their kids money to get them used to donating. Last Friday somebody came up and said he felt guilty for not donating for a long time and handed me a $100 note," Alan says.

"A retired doctor from Tuggeranong regularly donates $500 and he's done it for years."

However, Alan is quick to stress that any donation is appreciated.

"It doesn't matter whether it's $1, $2, or even a silver coin, it all helps," he says.

Then there is another side to the collection process – the social side.

"I reckon he does it because he likes the people and has lots of regulars," Joy says with a playful wink.

Being in contact with Alan helps others in ways that extend beyond financial support. For many it is just having somebody to talk to, who will listen, but for a regular visitor Vick there was something extra.

"He had a bung hand and couldn't manicure his nails so he'd come up and I'd help him," Alan says.

"That was the blind leading the blind because he's got a shaky hand," Joy adds.

"Another of my regulars was a former air chief marshal, the late Sir Neville McNamara. He died in the middle of last year, and like me, also had prostate cancer. When he would drop by he'd always want to swap stories about how our treatments were going. He said talking about it made him feel better," Alan says.

At this point Alan proudly reaches for a book from his shelf. It is The Quiet Man by Sir Neville and the inscription reads "Alan, in admiration of your own dedication to a very worthy cause".

The ongoing dedication shown by Alan is even more amazing in the face of his own declining health.

"Apart from the cancer, I've had a couple of heart attacks and several kidney stone operations, and had to spend two Christmases in Calvary Hospital, and that really ruined the Christmas collections," he says.

"Every four weeks I go to Canberra Hospital for oncology treatment, and that's been happening for seven years, and for those days I can't find anyone to replace me in doing the collections.

"I'm also gone in the hip and my right leg and I'm having trouble walking so it takes me a long time to get back to the car park carrying the stool.

"But I'll keep going until I keel over."

At the end of our conversation, Alan shares something else that keeps him going.

"On December 31, Joy and I are celebrating our 60th wedding anniversary and that's what I live for."

If you would like to contribute to the inspiring work Alan is doing, or just stop for a chat, look for him in the Canberra Centre near the City Market Chemist on Thursdays and Fridays or upstairs on Saturdays.

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