Wrapped up in our everyday routines, it often takes a chance event or an out-of-the-blue brush with tragedy to cause us to put the really important things in life into perspective…
It was chucking it down on Saturday 14 August 2010, but I wasn’t going to let the weather ruin my day. I drove my brother to the Midlands to try out a brand new experience: something I had been wanting to do for ages, after watching the Royal Caribbean TV Ads.
Bedford, I had discovered, has its own little piece of Caribbean paradise in the form of a Flow Rider surf simulator. Steve and I learned how to bodyboard, and every time we mastered a new skill the instructor encouraged us to show off in an ever more extrovert manner until we wiped out and joined the back of the queue to rejoin the fun. It was a brilliant experience, and we were having the perfect day.
On the return journey, just a mile from home, my car ran into a flash flood on a dual carriageway, slewed round, rolled twice and ended up in a blackberry bush. My SatNav flew out the window never to be seen again, and I was dead lucky not to lose my iPad and (the irony of it) my Blackberry.
Steve and I were incredibly lucky to walk away from the accident. The car was destroyed, but it protected us amazingly well. The accident may have cost me an arm and a leg (no, not literally) … but that pales into insignificance when I think of what could have happened. What if … what if … what if?
We don’t often think about death unless someone close to us dies or we have a close shave ourselves. You’re forced to acknowledge that life can be unpredictable, change quickly, or even be snatched away in an instant.
I am full of admiration for Michelle Cadman, one of our Junction49ers, who has campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness of knife crime after a close friend was murdered after a night out. Through her KnivesCostLives programme, Michelle carries out talks in local schools to raise awareness of knife crime and show them that there is an alternative to getting involved in gangs.
Has an unexpected life-event ever catalysed you to make the decision to put something extra back into your community? I’d love to hear about your experiences below. For my part I am determined, more than ever, to grasp life’s challenges and to appreciate my friends and family.
Are you up for putting aside a little spare time to improve the lives of others? If so, you may find a challenge worthy of you over on vInspired.
When I was a child my Mum used to shop in Elphicks, a family-run department store in Farnham. It had a particular fascination for me: because while shopping was boring, Elphicks had a couple of children’s sit-on toys. One was a well-loved stuffed animal of unidentified genus, while the other was a motorised horse. Stick in a coin, and this would lurch backwards and forwards in an alarming manner: an exciting prospect for an adventurous five-year-old. I would climb on, trying to look nonchalant, and hope that one day Mum might just dig out a coin as a reward for me being good. I was never good.
One day a kindly old man put some money in, and I was thrilled to be shaken around uncomfortably for a couple of minutes while Mum looked on with a slightly disapproving smile on her face. This was my first experience of a Random Act of Kindness, and I didn’t understand at the time why someone would be so nice to a total stranger.
People today are focused to the everyday grind of struggling against businesses that put profits above service, so it is a rare pleasure to confound their expectations by doing an unexpected favour.
If you are between 13 and 25 and feel kindly towards others, why not sign up as a Junction49er? Come up with an interesting project that will help your community and we can offer advice on Funding and Project Planning; and put you in touch with other Junction49ers – other young people who have completed similar projects. Your reward will be immense personal satisfaction, and you can apply for our v10, v50 and v100 volunteering awards.
To wet your appetite, this great film by Life Vest Inside shows how What Goes Around Comes Around. It never fails to make me well up.
Close your eyes, and imagine you are on the finest beach in the world, lying on a towel with a cold drink and a trashy book. As you wiggle your toes in the warm sand, the stress floats gradually from your knotted muscles.
Your towel is supported by four million grains of sand, give or take. You wouldn’t miss any individual grain if it wasn’t there, yet those grains combine to turn your corner of paradise into something wonderful.
The volunteering effort around the Olympics is a bit like that. OK, there’s a load of top quality international sport going on, but it wasn’t that which won London the bid. What is special about our Olympics is that up to 70,000 people will volunteer – each individually anonymous, but all part of a glorious event starting with the Opening Ceremony on 27 July and ending with the Paralympics closing ceremony on 9 September. I’m not a great sports fan, yet I felt a strong calling to be part of this magnificent adventure.
In November, I was one of 14,000 people who embarked on the audition process to perform at one of the ceremonies: a hopelessly overambitious goal for a mildly overweight middle-aged accountant. Although I sing with Rock Choir and do some impro I was woefully unprepared for … a dance audition. I don’t do dance. Pretty much everyone there was younger than me, fitter than me, and better looking than me. After the four hour audition, I was expecting a polite “Thanks, but no thanks”. Yet somehow, I scraped through by the skin of my teeth to a second audition, where I was asked demonstrate my abilities at an entirely different new skill.
And astonishingly, on 16 January, I received some extraordinary news: I will be performing at the 2012 Opening Ceremony. So if you scan your TV on that amazing night, for one nanosecond one of the pixels will be me.
There will be thousands of opportunities to volunteer in programmes before, during and after the Olympics. So if you fancy being a grain of sand on the finest beach in the world, find a project that aligns with your passions and be part of something amazing this summer.
I commute into London from the Chilterns – a beautiful area, famous for its wildlife. Red Kites soar above my garden; a Sparrowhawk recently perched on my bird feeder, waiting for its lunch to fly in; a fox wanders round the station car park at night; and my lane plays host to owls, bats, and badgers.
Like many Chilternians, I rely on Chiltern Railways to get into work. You would think that the trains would not pose a threat to the wildlife but in the weekend before Christmas, four sizeable birds were hit by trains, and their remains travelled all the way to Marylebone Station on the front of the train before dropping onto the tracks.
I hate to see dead wildlife so I reported the birds to the station staff, who weren’t interested … then the Chiltern Railways Twitter Feed (which escalated it to Network Rail but got nowhere) … then the Station Manager in person … then again to Twitter … and finally a formal complaint to Customer Services. The issue was even trending on Twitter for a while. The station manager said it was a Network Rail problem as the birds were on the lines. Network Rail, it seems, felt it was the Station Manager’s problem as the birds were in the station. After a couple of dozen communications spanning nearly a month, the manager grudgingly removed the dead birds. I despair at lack of initiative, recalcitrance, and those who side-step accountability.
What a refreshing contrast that the Team v Young Leaders at vInspired have such a “can do” attitude. In their recent food poverty drive, 41 of them inspired a further 308 young people and 135 schools and businesses (including Tesco and Morrisons) to secure over twenty thousand food items to help 6,629 poorer families over Christmas. The Young Leaders don’t hide behind jurisdiction; they don’t look for excuses to not do what needs doing. What is more, they are taking great pride in spending as little of their budget as possible. They blagged food from the public and supermarkets, and ran fundraising pub quizzes and Zumba classes.
Luke Harris went one step further: he spotted David Miliband on the tube one morning, and introduced himself; briefed the MP on the programme; and invited him to meet the volunteers later that week for a photoshoot outside the Houses of Parliament. Luke then jumped off the tube and sprinted across to the train at the opposite platform: he had gone way past his stop!
In a time when young people are often portrayed negatively in the press I, for one, can’t wait to give these Young Leaders a chance to run the country.
When I was a kid, one of my favourite fairy tales was The Elves and the Shoemaker. An impoverished shoemaker is helped out by a couple of elves, who secretly make shoes for him overnight until he’s back on his feet. I adored the story because I was intrigued by the altruism of the elves. The glow I felt inside when reading the story is the same one I now feel when volunteering.
These days, I am fired up by the concept of Guerrilla Gardening. From the moment I first saw a news item about it, I loved the fact that these enterprising individuals would emerge from the mist, transform some miserable scrag-end of land into a colourful feature, and then disappear into the night.
Throughout the capital, Guerrilla Gardeners have quietly transformed their communities. I used to study impro in Kentish Town and loved walking round the area: because everywhere the council has planted a tree, someone has turned the surrounding bare earth into a miniature garden. Guerrilla Gardening can, it seems, be done on a modest scale.
When I moved into my current house, there was an area nearby that used to depress me. It was a small neglected piece of land: mainly clay with deep holes in it, and covered with brambles and nettles. I hated passing it, and I am sure the locals felt the same. It was way too big a project to do in a couple of hours overnight, but happily the owners of the land were delighted for me to tackle it.
So over a series of weekends, I
- filled in the holes;
- designed the landscape;
- chopped down some dead trees;
- used the dead trees to edge the flower beds;
- weeded the space; and
- distributed a lorryload of topsoil into the flower beds.
I wanted to do the whole project on a shoestring budget, so many of the original flowers were cuttings from my or my Mum’s garden, and abandoned plants and wild flowers on a nearby building site that was about to be cleared. At one of vInspired’s project showcases, the Waterways Trust was giving away wild flower seeds, so I accepted these gratefully and scattered them in the Community Garden.
The garden needed a feature to tie it into its surroundings, so I built a bench from railway sleeper offcuts and created paths to draw the eye to this focal point from both directions. The garden now has real presence in its corner location, and the design works well whether you are approaching by car, foot or horseback from the nearby stables. The project has drawn many appreciative comments from the community and a dog walker joined me for an hour’s weeding last spring, to add his contribution to the project.
So if there is a local eyesore that would benefit from a bit of TLC, do see if you can improve matters.
A Word of Warning
It is very rare, but some councils have tried to prosecute Guerrilla Gardeners for improving their neighbourhoods. Just last Saturday, the Mirror (right) reported that a couple had cleared the rubbish and weeds from a piece of council land (a job the council is paid to carry out) and have been hit with a £78 demand by the council for a licence to allow them to do the work. Alternatively, the council requires the couple to throw rubbish on the land to “return it to how they found it”. Doubtless if they do as instructed, another department of the council will prosecute them for fly-tipping …
I do want to encourage you to improve your community: but please don’t do anything illegal.
I will always remember a couple of things my dad used to say to me as a child while we picked raspberries: “If you squish a raspberry, you had better eat it” and “will you stop squishing the raspberries -they’re supposed to go in the punnet”.
I was very fortunate to have strong role models in my parents. Right from the start, they set clear boundaries and made sure that my siblings and I knew what was expected of us; what was “right”; and also what my parents expected of themselves.
Likewise at school, the teachers lived by the rule book. Mainly to make their lives easier I think (small boys can be little monsters), although I am sure that giving us a strong steer in life was also important. The ultimate threat was for the school to tell our parents about a major transgression … and I would have died of shame if I had disappointed the parents who had made such sacrifices to give us a good start in life.
As I emerged from my oh-so-painful teens via my accountancy training and into a professional career as a Finance Director, I could trace a strong set of professional ethics all the way back to my childhood. In decision-making I often ask myself “What is the right thing to do?”.
This is why it is vital that the Government doesn’t wash its hands of young people who are not in education, employment or training schemes (“NEETs”). Everyone needs something useful to do with their time, something to strive for. And young people need strong role models as they transition from education into the adult world; people who can help them develop a strong moral compass; people who can explain to them why they should not squish the raspberries.
As youth unemployment increases, youth volunteering becomes ever more important as pairing young people with youth workers gives them the opportunity to work alongside a strong role model.
Unfulfilled Potential needs to be harnessed.
It seems like everywhere you look these days, there are endless examples of society’s fixation on either denying or augmenting reality.
Magazines are full of celebs who have been airbrushed beyond recognition. X Factor puts contestants’ voices through auto-tune to address suspect intonation (or “singing flat” as we peasants call it). Our only real experience of suffering comes from watching it all on our smartphones, sat on the sofa drinking coffee. Yes, from Saddam Hussein’s death to Johnny Knoxville’s latest goolie-crunching exploit, it’s all there. Reality from a safe distance.
That’s why volunteering has been an important part of my life. It keeps me grounded. It takes me out of my clean, tidy* everyday life and gives me first-hand experience and understanding of the problems faced by the more vulnerable members of society. I’ve helped people tackle issues, often not as an expert, but just as someone who is independent and imbued with a modicum of common sense and a strong work ethic.
*with the obvious exception of my desk, which is an absolute disgrace.
I was a Samaritan for four years. Sometimes I would support a one-off caller who had reached a short term crisis point in their lives – who was even suicidal – and play a pivotal part in helping them through that crisis.
But what I remember most clearly is the unremitting everyday grind of the single mum struggling to feed her kids, who had no-one to turn to for emotional support and encouragement; and the isolated pensioner who would go days without seeing another human being or receiving a call from an over-busy relative. Their suffocating isolation really brought home how trivial some of my every day challenges really were, and what a lifeline the Samaritans provided.
So… take a moment to think about those you know. Is there a family member you haven’t caught up with for a while? Do you have a friend who is feeling lonely or isolated? Pick up your phone. Give them a call or send them a text to let them know they are in your thoughts. It will make their day.
And don’t just do it because it is Christmas – put a few dates in your diary for 2012 and reconnect with them properly. It’s the best New Year’s resolution you could make.
“Here I am, brain the size of a Planet, and they ask me to pick up a piece of paper” is my favourite quote from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and it inspired my thoughts this week. Because, here in my pocket, is a device more powerful than the technology used to send a rocket to the moon. No – I’m not carrying a thermonuclear device capable of destroying what’s left of London after this summer’s riots: it’s my BlackBerry.
Very humbling thought, isn’t it, that our smartphones have more raw power than the computers that powered the Apollo space programme. If an alien landed in Westminster tomorrow (c’mon – you’re thinking John Redwood, aren’t you?), it could be forgiven for assuming that we’re all using this power to design skyscrapers and find the cure for cancer. Yet what do we do when we get our hands on the latest all-singing all-dancing muscle-beast of a phone? We text. We flirt. What we want to do more than anything else is to share our thoughts (of not more than 140 characters) with our closest friends and complete strangers. What we crave, beyond even talking to people, is to write. The same thing that drove the ancient Egyptians to invent papyrus.
I think said alien would return to its planet with a rather bemused smile on its face.
Sunday. I attend a second audition as a potential volunteer performer at the 2012 opening ceremony. About 14,000 of us started on this particular journey, and there is an extraordinary buzz of excitement. We are under strict instructions to reveal nothing about what we do at the auditions. “Tell people you’ve been wrestling anacondas” says the director.
Monday. My role encompasses IT as well as finance, and we are just about to commission a new contacts and grant management database. I spend a couple of hours planning the rationalisation and deduplication of our contacts and historic data. We have about 12,000 records on our old grants management database, plus another 4,000-odd on spreadsheets used for various events including our vInspired National Awards ceremony. All contact data will need to be cleaned and structured in Excel before we upload it into the new system.
Tuesday. I meet with my Commercial Director to discuss the Government’s new £1 billion package to get 400,000 young people into work. We were one of the delivery partners for the Future Jobs Fund and have been eagerly awaiting its replacement. The funding of the new programme is just 35% of that of its predecessor per placement: but with over 1 million young people out of work, we conclude that the scheme has potential to succeed if it can be administered inexpensively on a “light touch” basis. In the evening, I have a Rock Choir rehearsal. We have recently performed at the O2 and Wembley Arena, and tonight we learn about an amazing show we will be doing in March … which is top secret at the moment.
Wednesday. I attend a seminar on cloud computing. vInspired is rightsized at the moment in terms of servers, and we use Citrix for all our remote access. In the medium term, we will need to look at server virtualisation and cloud computing, and I want to keep abreast of these technologies as they develop. In the evening, I have a rehearsal for Beauty & The Beast – a local production in which I am playing Cogsworth. The costume is huge, and I can barely squeeze into the wings. I know I’ll be word perfect in a month … we open in a fortnight!
Thursday. I attend an investment conference. It is useful to benchmark our investment policy against the latest thinking, which confirms that equities are ideal for long term investment, but unsuitable for a horizon of less than twenty years. Most startling statistic is that half of all SMEs are financed on their owners’ credit cards.
Friday. We have a meeting of the Blog Group, led by our Head of Digital. We are trying to get a steady stream of interesting bite-sized entries on the vInspired blog which are well-written; express individuality; and cover a diverse range of issues and opinions. We agree on the next week’s entries, which are written by staff, directors and volunteers including a number of first timers – myself included. I hurriedly Google “Blogging for Dummies” …
This blog is based on an article which was published in Third Sector on 6 December