Cross of St Piran Awards 2023: Judy Backus MBE
Judy Backus is a woman with a van. She calls it her TARDIS because it manages to contain more than would seem physically possible.
Judy Backus is a woman with a van and a plan. She uses her van to deliver preloved furniture and home essentials to those most in need of them, from ex-offenders to victims of domestic abuse.
Judy Backus is a woman with an MBE.
Judy’s father was a vicar. He died when she was very young. Her family had a holiday home in Cornwall. She spent all her holidays here.
When Judy heard that she was going to receive an MBE for her charitable work, she immediately recalled a day many years earlier. “Honestly, my first thought went back when I was at school. I must have been about 15 at the time. My teacher asked me what I was good at. Well, we thought about it for a while, and we couldn’t think of anything. But she said I had a lovely smile.
“I was never good at anything at school. But when I got the MBE I realised you don’t have to be clever. You just have to be tenacious and passionate about what you do.
Judy went on to study art at Hammersmith College, where she developed a love of crafts. It was through that passion that she eventually came to discover a big recycling warehouse in Poole, where she sourced some of her materials. The place specialized in furnishings and homeware, and Judy helped out the man who ran it. When it at last closed down, she had the idea of setting up something similar.
“So I bought a van and hired a warehouse to give stuff to people who had nothing,” she says. “I started with the refuges, both women’s and men’s.”
As this ad hoc social enterprise grew, she realised it was time to establish it on a more formal footing, as a registered charity. “Somebody came along and said ‘you’re getting so old’ – I said ‘thank you’ – ‘you’ve got to turn this into a charity so it can keep going’.” Which is precisely what she did. Thus ‘Hidden Help’ was officially born.
She says that in her youth she’d always been made to go to church – she was after all a vicar’s daughter – but that she felt it had never done anything much for her. It therefore came as something of a relief to be able to swap her Sunday churchgoing, in all good conscience, for her charitable work.
“I thought I’d do this instead and help people,” she explains. I’m so lucky to do it. I have such a fulfilled life.”
She finds great joy in the people she’s helped. There was the man who said all he had was a toothbrush and the clothes he stood up in. And the woman who’d escaped from an abusive relationship and who’d been put in a flat with her baby, but without food, furniture or any money at all. And the man who’d posted his thanks to Judy on Facebook and said he was crying while writing it. Judy replied that she’d cried when she read it too.
Yet she manages to hide any possible hints of saintliness beneath a self-effacing modesty and a truly mischievous sense of humour.
“When Bishop Philip rang me up to say he wanted to thank me for what I do, I confessed that I didn’t go to church anymore. He told me that my van was my church.
“He asked me if he might pray for me. I said a bit cheekily that I’d have a think about it and get back to him on that.
“When I called him back, I said I’d like him to pray for me to avoid Covid, live a long life and find a carpet-fitter.
“Well, I haven’t caught Covid, I’m still alive and we’ve now taught people how to fit carpets for themselves, and given them the wherewithal to do so.”
It appears that on this occasion she was pretty convinced by the power of prayer.
She says she is also sincerely honoured by the award that the Bishop has conferred up her. “It means more to me than the MBE – because it’s more local, more Cornish.”
She feels deeply connected to the county she has made her home. “I’ve been coming here most of my life,” she explains. “Cornwall is very much part of my heart. Definitely.”
The Cross of St Piran awards ceremonies will take place at special services at 3.30pm and at 6.30pm on Sunday 5th March at St Piran’s Church, Perranzabuloe.