In the year I’ve spent highlighting the people doing good in their communities for the Guardian angel column, I’ve learned many things. First: no one sets out to be a do-gooder. Something happens to a person – calamity, sickness, loss – that opens a cavity in their chest, and once the air gets in, they’re not able to shut out the misfortunes of others.

They start with small, incremental gestures, which then grow over time. A network forms. Calls asking for help come during the day and night, and they are answered. The person’s free time is eroded, often their finances, too, and very occasionally even their health. Despite this, they keep going. Why?

Everyone I’ve spoken to says the same thing. Selfishness corrodes the soul. Time spent helping others is good for it. We are social creatures, after all.

Writing this column has been one of the most inspiring experiences of my career, but it’s time to wrap up Guardian angel as I prepare to go on maternity leave. I want to thank readers for nominating people who’d never dream of putting themselves forward, and all the organisations who’ve offered their resources to gift something back.

Khaled Wakkaa doing work experience on the Street Dogs food stall at Eat Festival in Wellington last year. Photograph: Alicia Canter/the Guardian

But, before I go, I wanted to catch up with some of my favourite subjects to see how their lives have changed since team angel swooped in.

When I spoke with Syrian refugee Khaled Wakkaa back in October 2021, he mentioned his dream of opening a Syrian street food van. He’d put together a business plan for a start-up loan, but it was rejected because of the pandemic, and the idea sat in a drawer, gathering dust. We put Wakkaa in touch with the Nationwide Caterers Association, who helped him complete his food hygiene qualifications, and connected him with a local mentor for work experience.

A year on, Wakkaa – who has now changed his name to Khaled Deakin, to honour his adoptive British foster family – is well on his way to his goal. After our article came out, Guardian readers donated £1,700 towards Deakin’s start-up costs.

Tern, a nonprofit organisation that helps refugees to start their own businesses, offered support. With its help, Deakin launched a crowdfunding campaign and raised nearly £19,000; almost enough to get the business off the ground, but not quite. But he’s confident he will get there.

“Guardian angel woke me up,” says Deakin. “I nearly gave up on my dream before. It showed me I could realise it in the future. This could be real life. Because you made everything happen for me.”

Sandra Lowe takes a break from attending to the patients in her hedgehog hospital to pick up my call. Lowe, a retired psychiatric nurse, is the founder and chief medical officer of a 13-hutch hedgehog hospital in her garden near Ryton, Tyne and Wear.

Or at least it was a 13-hutch hedgehog hospital: thanks to team angel, Lowe now has a second hospital in a specially converted shed. Which is just as well, as they’ve never been so busy. “It’s been crazy,” says Lowe. “Last year we treated 186 hogs. This year it’s already 220 and we haven’t had the autumn rush yet.”

James Anderson, photographed at his office for Depher in Burnley
James Anderson, photographed at his office for Depher in Burnley

Lowe’s former hospital is now being used as an outpatient clinic, while the new one is used for in-patient treatments. “It’s like the difference between driving a Morris Minor and a Jaguar,” says Lowe. “We were in a small shed before, trying to do medication, assessments and treatments with two volunteers. It was impossible. So getting the new hospital – it’s been huge.”

Of all the Guardian angel columns, James Anderson’s appearance in December 2021 probably had the biggest impact. Anderson runs the community initiative company Depher: he takes the profits from his plumbing business and uses them to provide subsidised or free heating repairs for those in need. After his piece was published, he received £70,000 in donations to his GoFundMe page. “It makes you feel really humble,” he says. “We’re now in the position where we can help a lot more people.”

Anderson has massively ramped up his operations. In addition to fixing boilers, he’s sending food and fuel vouchers to people across the country, and paying for repairs he’s not able to carry out himself. The day we speak, he paid for a company in Lincoln to fix a boiler for an elderly man with a disabled daughter – they hadn’t had heating or hot water for five years. “It makes me really angry,” he says. “But because of the donations, this family will now have winter in a warm home.”

He is terrified by the escalating cost of living crisis. “I don’t try to contact the government any more. It’s a waste of time. My time now is about getting more work in, so I can create more profit, and more donations. Forget the government. They’re a non-entity. My responsibility is to the people.”

He asks me to promise to include his contact information, so that low-income households know where to turn this winter.

His words are a reminder to me: even in difficult times, there’s a lot of good out there in the world, if we look for it.

Contact Depher 01282 420678 or [email protected]

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