The last 16 months have been a difficult time for everyone.

As well as understandable concerns surrounding health and wellbeing - plus the increased financial pressures faced by individuals and businesses, the strain associated with the national lockdown has seen a dramatic rise in the number of people suffering with mental health issues.

Yet despite the gloom there have been some rays of light - not least a greater appreciation of the simple pleasures of life and the sense of emotional fulfilment that comes from helping others.

Throughout the lockdown, there have been countless examples of people giving up their time to help others – either friend or family member, neighbour or often complete strangers, and for most it has been a pleasurable and often beneficial experience.

In fact, these past months have shown people that their mental wellbeing can receive a significant boost when they have volunteered their time to help others.

That sense of fulfilment that comes from simple acts of kindness is no surprise to the monks, nuns and volunteers of Skanda Vale, the non-denominational spiritual centre and monastery located near the village of Llanpumsaint in north Carmarthenshire.

At Skanda Vale, sacrifice and service for the benefit of others is fundamental to daily life – and while it might surprise many, it turns out that the rewards can go both ways.

“During the Covid lockdown, many people have come to realise that the simple act of helping others brings countless benefits,” said Brother Francis, who has been at Skanda Vale since the mid 1990s.

“Volunteering your time, energy and expertise to those in need can help you just as much as it does those you are helping.”

Life at Skanda Vale is based around that notion of selfless service and it is nowhere better illustrated than at Skanda Hospice, the palliative care facility set up in the nearby village of Saron.

The hospice is staffed by an army of volunteers who work alongside the small team of paid members of staff and offers a full range of support to its patients and their family members by providing respite care for those approaching the end of their lives.

Fitted with some of the best equipment available and set in beautiful, tranquil gardens, everything about the hospice – from the design and layout of the building to the staffing structures that allow it to operate – conform to the Skanda Vale ethos.

“We are incredibly fortunate that we have so many people willing to give up their time to volunteer at the hospice to support others in need,” explained Brother Francis.

“It is difficult to explain or put into words, but there is an energy that comes from people giving up their time to help others. There is a very special energy at the hospice that you do not find anywhere else.

“That is purely down to the fact the people working there are doing it for no reason other than to help others.

“We have hospital consultants, doctors and nurses who come in to offer their time as care assistants. That’s incredible when you stop to think about it.

“Ultimately, we are all here because we are all working together for a good idea.”

That good idea sprang initially from what many would have seen as a moment of despair.

The hospice was set up when Guru Sri Subramanium, founder of the Skanda Vale monastery, suffered a heart attack and was taken to Glangwili Hospital in Carmarthen.

While recovering from surgery, he found himself on a ward with an elderly man who was approaching the end of his life.

“The old man was completely alone,” said Brother Francis. “He called for a priest, but within 15 minutes of the priest leaving, he called for him again – he had either forgotten or didn’t know who he had just been talking to.

“He was alone and confused with no one there to help or support him.

“Because of seeing that poor old man, Guru Sri Subramanium immediately decided he would set up a hospice.

“His vision was for somewhere which could provide simple end of life care which would be run by people who were willing to give up their time for others.

“We all know we are going to die at some point - it is a fundamental truth.

“It is how you manage that that is important: if you die a traumatic death in impacts everyone around you. If you die a death of peace and contentment, whatever your faith, the feeling you leave behind in your loved ones is different. It changes everything.

“We recognise that some people will be able to manage that on their own and others will not. Some people do not have resources, whether financial or emotional, and that is where we can help.

“The hospice facilities that. It allows people to be as comfortable as possible while freeing them of all the stress and fear surrounding death.

“Allowing all those troubles and worries to dissipate can make a massive difference to the quality of someone’s end of life.

“Our entire ethos is simply to be able to look after people when they need us most and it is because of our volunteers that we are able to do that.

“The aspiration is that in future we would have a full staff team all on a volunteer basis, but at the present time we are required to have paid staff in order to confirm with government guidelines.”

While the thought of supporting strangers in the final days and weeks of life might seem, at first glance, a heavy burden to bear, Brother Francis is adamant that the opposite is.

“It is an incredibly rewarding and uplifting experience,” he said.

“You see first-hand the difference you are making to someone – often someone who might be at their lowest ebb – and you see the peace and comfort you bring.

“Of course there will be grief, but we enable the person to find peace and, in the widest sense of the word, be who they truly are, spiritually. It also helps family members to move on and accept what is happening to their loved one.

“It is an incredible privilege if you can be there for someone‘s last few days and help them come to terms with it. If you can do that for just one person then it is all worth it.”

Maintaining the hospice and providing the outstanding care it offers requires hundreds of volunteers.

“It is a colossal undertaking.

“Our volunteers do every and take up almost every role in the hospice, whether it be the care staff, the drivers, those working on reception, or the gardens who have created our wonderful gardens for our visitors to enjoy.

“We need hundreds of people to make things work, but we recognise that every single person has something to offer.

“Everyone is who they are and how they are, accepting that promotes a greater awareness of ourselves and those around us.

“The work we do here makes you so aware and so grateful for the things you have; it cultivates a gratitude for the small and simple things in life.

“Giving your time and energy to others is a precious thing.”

The willingness of people across the country to get more involved in volunteering and helping others generally during the past year or more has not gone unnoticed by the monks and nuns of Skanda Vale, and Brother Francis hopes it will help shape the nation’s actions in future.

“If Covid has taught us anything it must be that society can be more integrated and giving than it has in the past,” he said.

“People have had a lot of time on their hands during lockdown and there is an incredible wealth of skills that they have been willing to share.

“People have realised that they all have something to offer and as a society we need to recognise that and be better at using it.

“You can be the richest person in the world without renumeration,” said Brother Francis,with a smile, “once you see the value of what you can offer others.”