'My daughter took her life after being broken by Oxfam' - Devastated mum speaks out

Major Irish charity Oxfam at centre of bullying allegations

Gertie Balfe holding photographs of her late daughter, Trudi

Ralph Riegel

A major Irish charity is at the centre of bullying allegations after the mother of a young woman who took her own life claimed she had been “left broken” by the charity’s intense sales-driven focus.

The Government has now been urged to create a Charities Ombudsman after 14 former volunteers with Oxfam said their treatment had been “shocking and deeply upsetting.”

Seven volunteers have lodged formal complaints with Oxfam claiming they had been bullied and harassed.

Four volunteers have now written to Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and the Charities Regulator demanding changes to charity regulations.

Trudi Soysal (40), the founder of Oxfam’s Mullingar store and who helped open other Oxfam stores in Portlaoise and Tralee, took her own life on June 16.

Trudi, who worked for five years for Oxfam without missing a single day through illness, was forced to take stress-related leave from Oxfam twice over the past year.

“She was ground down and left broken,” said her heartbroken mother, Gertie Balfe.

“It was the same as driving a screw into a piece of wood. The pressure was tightened on her until, just like a screw, the head snapped.

Trudi Soysal (40)

“The reason we are speaking out now is because we don’t want any other Irish family to suffer this kind of tragedy.

“I am absolutely convinced that the way my daughter was treated was directly linked to her death,” Gertie said.

Gertie Balfe holds photographs of her daughter, Trudi

“Oxfam has offered me counselling but all I want is my daughter back,” the heartbroken mother said.

Trudi worked for Oxfam for five years without difficulty – but her mother said she was under incredible pressure over the past year due to performance demands, her treatment by some within the organisation and what she felt was her increasing isolation within the charity operations.

Gertie said one demand was that the Oxfam store needed to open on Sunday and if unpaid volunteers were not available to staff it, Trudi would have to operate the store on her own.

Despite having taken Sunday and Monday off for the previous five years, she was also informed this was no longer possible. Gertie said her daughter was also told she would have to distance herself from volunteers, many of whom only agreed to support Oxfam because of their friendships with Trudi.

Oxfam chief executive Jim Clarken acknowledged Trudi’s “sudden and untimely death has continued to deeply affect the parents, family members and friends of our colleague, as well as all the volunteers and staff in the Mullingar shop”.

He described Trudi as “a much respected manager”.

But the charity said it would be “inappropriate for us or any unqualified person to speculate about the circumstances and conditions surrounding the tragic death in advance of such matters being considered by a coroner in the context of an inquest”.

“We recognise that this is a private family loss and wish to be respectful and sensitive to their privacy.” He also confirmed Oxfam was dealing with complaints from Mullingar volunteers about “behaviour in the workplace”.

“These were fully and thoroughly investigated and one person is currently appealing the findings. An external expert is conducting this appeal,” he said.

“Nonetheless, we recognise and very much regret that there has been a breakdown of trust with some volunteers that have given their time, energy, talent and commitment to Oxfam.”

The Herald has learned that 14 Oxfam volunteers, all unpaid, met last March to discuss their workplace concerns. Seven volunteers lodged formal complaints on March 31.

Paula Griffin, Patricia Gannon, Amanda Murray, Margaret O’Keeffe and three others lodged various complaints about alleged bullying.

“I am 69 years old, I am not being paid for the volunteer work I do and one evening I went home fighting back tears and with my hands shaking from the stress. I thought to myself: ‘I just don’t need this’. But when we raised what was happening, no one seemed to take it seriously,” Patricia said.

On June 15, Oxfam rejected all their bullying complaints as unfounded.

Just over 24 hours later, Trudi took her own life after sending a text to her Oxfam volunteer friends saying: “Luv you all XXXX”.

- Anyone affected by this article can contact the Samaritans on 116123.