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My Life Volunteering

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Dark purple background scattered with small dark purple and mint green hearts, with bold, capitalised white text that reads 'MY LIFE VOLUNTEERING'. Underneath the text is an illustarted outline of raised hands over a heart. Equal Lives logo at top right.

To mark Volunteers' Week, the 40th year celebration of volunteers across the country, we have a guest blog from one of our Trustees, Martin Symons, on his lifetime of volunteer work.

Where I Started: Leybourne Grange Riding School for the Disabled


It’s now been forty years since I started volunteering and being involved in the charity sector. It all started in 1984, a year after I left school. I’d had a careers interview, and, for some dire reason, I was thinking about entering domestic work. However, I soon discovered that I wouldn’t be able to hold down a job in the field because of either my height or strength, depending on the role; I have physical disabilities, including severe Scoliosis, restricted joint movement, and Aplastic Anaemia, among other conditions.


Despite my disabilities, I was fit and healthy and could work. I ended up at a local Day Centre, performing menial tasks for 80p a day (increased to £1 a day in later years I worked there). That’s all the pay I was allowed without it having a negative effect on my disability benefits; if I were to have earned any more from the work, they would have been significantly cut.


In April of that year, I’d started horse riding at Leybourne Grange Riding School. Two months later, the manager, Jill Clements (who was to become a good friend of mine) called me into the office after a riding lesson and asked me if I’d be interested in helping around the premises as a volunteer. Jill was the first person to encourage me to truly believe I could be in some form of work.


I started volunteering at the riding school one day a week. The school was part of Leybourne Grange Hospital, which cared for those with mental illnesses and severe learning disabilities. At the time I was volunteering, many of its residents had been living there for over forty years, and lots of them attended the school’s riding sessions.


I was asked to do nearly everything that the other workers were doing, including grooming the horses (yes, even those twice the size of me!), getting the horses ready for riding lessons, mucking out, carrying bales of straw and hay, and, of course, cleaning tack. It became a way for me to keep fit and mobile!


I worked with people who were around the same age as me, and most of them were non-disabled. This gave me a lot more confidence in myself; I’d not really had friends like this before; after leaving school, I’d been leading quite a sheltered life. Now, I was having a brilliant time with good people, and only because I was volunteering once a week at a riding school for Disabled people. It all came as a surprise to me.


As the year went on, I volunteered more, as I was really enjoying the outdoor life. I spent three days of the week at the Day Centre and one morning of the week at hydrotherapy (although, after a year or so, I gave this up; I was getting all the physiotherapy I needed). I eventually spent every waking moment at the riding school. Even in snow, I was there; I was only in walking distance of the premises, after all. I even stayed at the school at night, with its staff, when any of the horses fell ill.


I spent nearly six years at the riding school and, whilst there, saw many changes come about, including the introduction of liveries, and the organisation becoming a charity, called Leybourne Grange Riding Centre for the Disabled. One of the highlights of my time there was whenever we took part in horse shows, and another was whenever we held riding classes for Disabled riders (which I participated in). On leaving, I felt more self-confident than ever before, and had found my independence; I now knew what it meant not only to hold responsibility, but to be valued for my presence, time, and work.


What I Did Next: Special Sports and the Disability Working Party


In 1992, I was getting a taste for adventure again. I’d been sailing regularly for two years on a large sailing vessel that had once competed in the Tall Ships Race, and through my involvement in sailing, I became acquainted with a local charity called Special Sport, who organised sporting activities for Disabled people. The charity had been started by Pat Anderson, an assistant to a PE teacher at the local special needs school. The majority of the charity’s clients were adults with learning disabilities and behavioural issues and were from care homes.


Special Sports offered residential weeks in Wales to their clients, and this was the service in which I started volunteering. The residential weeks included activities such as canoeing, climbing, swimming, and trampolining, and I really got into them. A few months into volunteering with Special Sport, I also started to get involved with the administration and fundraising of the charity, which was new to me, but an incredible learning experience.


Around the same time, I joined the Disability Working Party of Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council, which was, in effect, an access group run by the Council that looked at issues around access in council-owned buildings, including council estates. About a year or so after that, inspired by the work of the Disability Working Party, an independent group was set up by Disabled people in the area, campaigning to improve access in Tonbridge and Malling even further. I became involved in this group though helping to look at the accessibility of venues, and by advocating for a diverse and inclusive approach to their work.


Staying Involved: High Hopes


In 1994, I set up and began my own charity, High Hopes. Its services were like that of Special Sports, but rather than offering residential weeks and activities, High Hopes offered Disabled people with sports and activity holidays. More often than not, we arranged trips within the UK and Europe, but sometimes we went further afield, as well, such as to the Himalayas. I ran the charity for seven years, and though it was extremely rewarding, it was also challenging; it required many specialist workers who knew how to care for various Disabled people and lead extreme sports and activities at the same time.


I sadly had to leave High Hopes behind in 2001, due to my ill health. I suffered a respiratory failure, and it meant that my mobility worsened, and that I was suddenly dependent on others much more than I had ever been before in my adult life. For a year or so, I took a pause on volunteering, and focused on my health and wellbeing.


Then, I became involved in a project that looked at the accessibility and availability of outdoor activities for Disabled people in Kent. The project identified a lack of outdoor activities for Disabled people in the region, and so it worked to fix this. At the end of the project, I helped create a video that showcased outdoor pursuits for Disabled people, and afterwards, groups were set up to enable Disabled people to engage with them. The project was the perfect opportunity for me to return to what I was experienced in and passionate about – I only wish I could remember its name!


Moving to Norfolk: Inclusive Norwich and Equal Lives


I moved to Norfolk in December 2007 and was quite inactive until late 2008, when I joined the Norwich Access Group (now known as Inclusive Norwich). Almost immediately, I became Secretary on their Trustee Board. The group had the same aims as my previous group in Kent; the only difference was that the focus was for Disabled people in Norwich. I became involved in addressing and improving accessibility issues in the area and, eventually, in helping with the day-to-day running of the group as Co-Chair.


As well as Inclusive Norwich, I started working with the Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People (NCODP), now known as Equal Lives! At the time (and still to this day), the charity offered a Direct Payment service which provided financial support to Disabled people regarding their Personal Budget, as well as a Payroll service, which helped those receiving Adult Social Care with employing personal assistants, for example. It also had an Independent Living Group (ILG) for these clients. I volunteered as an administrator of the ILG, supporting members to participate in the group, helping to organise transport for members, and ensuring members were kept up to date about meetings and other events.


After volunteering in this position for a while, I subsequently started to run the Norwich ILG, until 2018, when it closed. About the same time, I became a Representative for Scoliosis Support & Research (formerly Scoliosis Association UK) to raise awareness of Scoliosis in Norfolk by helping to organise meet ups for those with Scoliosis, to share their experiences, and to receive support. I stepped down from my position at the charity back in January 2024, to focus on my other responsibilities; I’m proudly the Co-Chair of Making it Real, the Co-Chair of the Direct Payments Support Service Advisory Group, and a Trustee of Equal Lives.

What it Means to be a Volunteer

Image described in caption
Martin, a white man with light brown hair, is wearing round-framed, metal glasses and a brown and dark green rugby shirt, in front of a blue chair with a leaf print.

There are many advantages to being a volunteer, such as the flexibility volunteering can offer you. I’ve been lucky that the organisations I’ve volunteered for have consistently been understanding of my needs, particularly between the years 2014 and 2022, when I was experiencing serious health issues. Even at Equal Lives, there are times I volunteer from home. I’ve been able to volunteer as and when I can, learning new skills and building experience at my own pace. I would not be where I am today without having had opportunities to volunteer over the years.


If you’ve thought about volunteering but have never taken it up, you should consider doing so! Many charity organisations value their volunteers and want to help support them in gaining confidence and new skills. What’s more, volunteering will provide you with opportunities to develop, network, and make friends for life.

Written by Martin Symons

Edited by Jordan Hunnisett

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