How did you first become involved with Back Up?
In November 2015, I received an email from my company asking for people to volunteer as Buddies on Back Up’s Ski Karting course in Sweden. I liked the idea but two things held me back initially:
- I knew nothing about spinal cord injury – I had never even met someone with a spinal cord injury. So I felt completely inadequate for the role – what could I offer Back Up and the participants?
- It was a busy time at work and I didn’t think my manager would let me take an extra week off.
But I was still interested so I applied on the last day before the deadline. Luckily, my boss is a snowboard fanatic and understood the benefits of the course so he happily signed off on me taking the week to volunteer. (He just came back earlier this year from Back Up’s Colorado Sit Ski course where he also went as a Buddy – so I managed to get him hooked on Back Up too!)
So you started off as a corporate buddy then became a regular volunteer. What prompted that decision?
The energy, the positive vibes, the amazing team work and the friendships I got out of the Sweden Ski Karting course were the main reasons behind my decision to continue volunteering with Back Up. That week in Sweden I felt I really contributed by just being myself and bringing a positive attitude. I learned from others, listened to what they needed, helped out wherever I could and had fun with everyone. It was quite an intense schedule: from coffee rounds in the morning at 7am, to going through the skiing schedule, to afternoon spa sessions and socialising till late. But I never felt tired.
My biggest worry was that I might hurt or offend someone I was actually trying to help by offering assistance. Was there a protocol? I didn’t want to be rude and do things for people that they’d prefer to do themselves. Thankfully, one of the volunteer nurses gave me the best advice at that point and said that if you’re not sure, just ask.
Following that discussion, I felt much more confident like I was part of a very well-functioning machine. And after a while, I felt like I didn’t even notice that some people were using a wheelchair. I just stopped seeing the chair and started seeing the person.
After the Sweden Ski Karting course, I decided I wanted to do another course with Back Up as a buddy, to get to know some more incredible people and gain more experience so I could get trained up as a group leader.
I decided to volunteer on the Belfast City Skills course in August 2016. What really touched me was the progress I saw in the participants over the duration of the course. Everyone felt more independent and left with renewed self-confidence because of the skills they discovered (from balancing on their back wheels, to going down flights of stairs, to pushing with one hand while holding a drink – everyone learned something new and useful). Belfast is also a beautiful city and we had a very knowledgeable guide to take us around.
What did you get out of your volunteering experience?
On a personal level, I learned a lot about the challenges people with a spinal cord injury face in daily life. I also gained self-confidence as I found out that I can try new things and do them well. I also made lots of wonderful friendships.
As a Buddy, I had to use my initiative a lot to recognise when tasks needed to be completed and when participants required assistance. This has transferred to my professional life as I can see when colleagues need my advice and where I can add value to a discussion.
Do you think more companies should create opportunities for their employees to volunteer?
Yes as it gives people a chance to get to know each other in a more relaxed environment where job titles don’t matter. You can also develop skills that are applicable to your job, but that you don’t get to explore so much on a daily basis. These will definitely benefit the company as people feel they are more valued when given opportunities to learn and grow. This year, we have 3 teams taking on the Back Up Snowdon Push. It just shows that people from different departments can come together and work as a team, and that they are eager to volunteer – if given the opportunity.
It’s fantastic to have this support for our buddy programme from BMO. The combination of a financial contribution from a company and the employees volunteering their time ensures that Back Up can continue to offer these life-changing courses. If you’d like to volunteer as a corporate buddy, please contact our Corporate Partnerships Manager, Sean McCallion, on 020 8875 6747 or email email@example.com.