A VITAL helping hand given by a mini army of volunteers at Swansea's Morriston Hospital might be at risk. Amy Downward has been meeting some of those on its front line...
IT is 9am and the smell of coffee and sound of chatter is already filling the entrance to Morriston Hospital. There's some catching up to do, a bit of friendly natter and the opportunity for a quick cuppa.
It's been much the same since the 1940s when the WRVS coffee shop was first set up there, allowing both staff and patients to stop by for a quick refreshment before tackling the events of the day.
But it is also about rather more than that too. Not least, the friendly ear offered by its volunteer helpers to patients, staff and often upset family members who might want to unload any worries they might have.
"It's a real listening ear," says one of its uses when I call in there early one evening.
"Yes, the coffee and newspapers you can buy matters. But it is also nice to just be able to exchange a few friendly words with staff too. It makes a difference." Could its 60-plus-year history about to be coming to an end? Well, possibly, yes.
For staff and volunteers at the Women's Royal Voluntary Service (WRVS) have been told their cafe is closing, in order to make way for a new larger coffee shop as part of a huge multi-million pound makeover at the site. The revelation has now prompted 10,000 people to sign a petition in order to try and keep its doors open.
"Maybe because we offer far more than just a cup of tea at the café," says helper Morfa Owen.
Morfa, aged 71, has been a volunteer at the WRVS coffee shop for 12 years.
"This coffee shop is so popular and much needed in the hospital," she says.
"When I started my shift this lunchtime the queues were out the door and down the corridor.
"We offer a friendly ear for people to talk to and also reasonably priced refreshments for people who cannot leave the hospital.
''We also have a trolley service that serves food and drinks for people wanting a little treat, but who are unable to leave their beds or the ward."
For anyone looking for a cheap and fresh lunch deal, the volunteers have a meal deal of a drink, crisps and sandwich available for £3.75.
"It is really good value for money," says Morfa.
"The time hospital staff themselves have is limited so we do all we can to cut down waiting times and have plenty of volunteers giving up their free time in order to get people their products as quickly as possible.
"I always do two shifts a week as a minimum and really look forward to working.
"There are three shifts we cover: 9am to 1pm, 1pm to 4.30pm and 4.30pm to 8pm. The shop closes at 8pm and is busy right up until the end."
Morfa says there is never a quiet moment at the coffee shop as the different visiting hours and staff shift patterns means there is a constant demand for the services it offers.
The buzz of the coffee shop keeps going all day long with visitors from right across Wales ending up in the café.
"We see visitors from the valleys and right across Wales," says Morfa.
"They come from far and wide and sometimes have travelled long distances so are very tired. We always make sure we have time for each customer and give plenty of time to talk to them.
"They say 'thank goodness for a decent cup of coffee' when we quickly make steaming mugs of tea and coffee for them.
"We also get to know the regular patients and listen to their stories. Some of them don't even need to say what coffee they want, because we already know. They rely on us.
"As they say 'a problem shared is a problem halved.' And we try and create as friendly an environment as possible. Morriston is a huge hospital with hundreds of people visiting every day.
"Lunchtime is definitely the busiest time of the day. But there is very little time between stages."
The volunteers at the WRVS hospital shop and trolley service, some of whom have been working with WRVS for almost 50 years, dedicate an average of 180 hours of their time and deal with more than 7,000 customers each week. There are currently eight paid members of staff who work at the shop and more than 50 active volunteers.
Some of the profits from the services are gifted back to Morriston Hospital, which allows the hospital to invest in new facilities.
However staff have been told the shop will go this July to make way for a new coffee shop, plus a new, so-called coffee 'pod'.
Swansea East AM Mike Hedges has given his support to the shop.
He says the service it offers, together with daily deliveries to patients on the wards is a "great service to patients and I would be disappointed if it was to close.
"I have offered my support already to WRVS volunteers who currently run the stall in the hospital."
Meanwhile, a legal tendering process is already in place to see who might take the service over.
The WRVS, say officials, are welcome to apply as part of that.
"I really enjoy my job and would be lost if it was closed," Morfa says.
"The fact we have 10,000 signatures says it all really. People were devastated when they found out. We really enjoy what we do and provide a friendly and personal service."
A woman who I chat to the night I happen to be passing by, agrees.
"It's the personal touch here that matters," she adds. "And that I think is what is going to be missing if this goes. I just hope that somehow, it can still be saved."