Andy rebuilds his life through volunteering after devastating diagnoses

When Andy enters the room, his huge smile, infectious laugh and cheerful attitude immediately make you feel at ease. Yet before he began volunteering two years ago, he spent 20 years rarely leaving his home.

Andy, 50, says volunteering for Abberton Rural Training in Wormingford is his “passion”: “I can’t get enough of it!” He also volunteers for Greenfields as a Chair-based Exercise Buddy, which he “looks forward to every week”. But his journey to this point has been filled with challenges.

When Andy was 15, he left his school in Witham with plans to join the army. However, an eye test a few months later confirmed a diagnosis of Keratoconus; a progressive eye disease that distorts vision.

Andy married in his 20s and was raising a family when he also began suffering from severe psoriasis (a painful skin condition).  His eyesight also began degenerating, leading to six transplant operations, all unsuccessful. To make matters worse, Andy was later hospitalised for months due to his conditions.  He began also suffering from irritable bowel syndrome and his strong medications led to him developing chronic kidney and liver damage.

Andy’s conditions affected him physically and mentally, while hampering his ability to work, and he spent the vast majority of his time in bed due to being in severe pain.  Eventually, he separated from his wife. He said: “There were times when I didn’t want to live.”

Faced with such setbacks and despite a “good outlook on life”, Andy rarely left his home, venturing out only to buy food. Then in 2015, while living in a Greenfields flat in Witham, he received a call that would transform his life for the better.

“The Job Centre contacted me and my assigned Work Coach told me about Abberton Rural Trainings’ courses. I was really out of my comfort zone, but I thought: ‘I’ll do it, even though I want to stay at home’.”

Andy enjoyed the 12-week Health and Nutrition course, although he felt “a bit uncomfortable and self-conscious of my skin”. He took on an apprenticeship, but his psoriasis became so serious he was hospitalised for six months and couldn’t complete it. However, he retained his passion for Abberton Rural Training.

Andy says: “When I got out of hospital, I wanted to build my life up again. I was offered the opportunity to volunteer for Abberton Rural Training; teaching unemployed people a range of skills, including trades and conservation, and being their first port of call when they arrive.”

Jacqui Stone, Chief Executive Officer of the award-winning project, describes Andy as their “weapon”. She says: “When people first arrive, we set Andy on them if they’re reluctant or scared! He gets to another level, as his story resonates.”

Andy also enjoys volunteering for Greenfields, taking part in a cooking project in the summer to teach people how to feed their families on a budget and helping to support the Chair Based Exercise group.  He says: “I enjoy the smiles on the faces of the people taking part.  It’s really good fun.” And since beginning volunteering, he’s lost half his body weight, going from 30 to 15 stone.

He says: “I love Abberton Rural Training. It’s my passion - there’s lots of potential for people who are isolated or ill. After a couple of weeks, everyone is smiling, and they can’t get enough of the place.”

Sharon reaches her goal!

Sharon first came to us when visiting her Son, who was taking part in one of our courses.  She began to become interested in what we were doing and when we announced we were opening new courses for adults who were long term unemployed, she readily signed up.  Having been isolated and out of work for a number of years, she was apprehensive as to what she could do, or how she would cope, but having seen her son flourish was determined to give it a go.  Started on our environment and horticulture courses, and went on to do Carpentry and construction, moving on to the Essex Rural Skills courses, when they became available.  She was really determined to complete everything we could throw at her!

Because she had completed every course we had, but was not yet ready to move on, she signed up to become a volunteer and help other people starting on the courses to feel relaxed and comfortable with what they were getting into - and for many that is quite a daunting prospect.  

We then advertised for a very part time cleaner, and as always we advertised the position to our students first, and she readily took up this new challenge.  She found a love for it, and it wasn’t too long until she resigned from our post as she had gone for, and been offered, a new position cleaning for the local school and doctors surgery, which gave much more hours and money.  She had got a taste for working and earning! We were sorry to lose her as our cleaner, but so happy for her progression, and she was still coming in during the day to continue to volunteer for us, so we weren’t losing her completely!

She has now though had to hand in her notice at the school and doctors as she has a new full time position with Aldi cleaning in their Warehouse, and is now going to be some £500 a month better off. Not only that but her son and daughter (who joined the course later on) are also now working, which means that three years ago a completely workless household are now all in employment, off benefits, and much better off. She had said at the beginning of 2018 that her goal for this year was to be off benefits, and she made it! Such an achievement. And most importantly Sharon has a big smile on her face and is loving life!

Martin proves his worth!

Martin started at our project following the recent death of his father and still grieving the death of his mother a year earlier. He had lived with them, continuing to support them in the last stages of their illness as he had most of his adult years. In addition to the resultant social isolation, he suffered from severe and paralysing anxiety and self-doubt.With no living family members, and now living in his own home and on the surface having everything he needed, Michael was desperately sad and lonely.

He heard about ART from a mental health worker and attended at his recommendation. His negativity and self-doubt was formidable and he constantly voiced his doubts that anything could help give him a purpose in life. However, he attended regularly and responded slowly to the  input of his dedicated psychological mentor, the patience, skill and humour of the woodland tutor and the non-judgemental acceptance of the other staff and participants.

Following intense coaching, encouragement and at times, challenging, he was supported to interview for a part-time role in maintenance for a local housing association.  He was very sceptical about the possibility of success, and when he was invited back for a second interview said numerous times that “they are only making up the numbers”, “they can’t possibly want me”. His confidence was still low in himself, although he had proved how capable he was on our courses, producing some exceptional work. We continued to encourage him, and he was successful. Although even three months later he was still saying that “they will find out I can’t do the job!”.  We said “But you are doing it!”  He is still employed there and is reported to be a much-valued member of staff.

Patrick has turned his life around completely!

Patrick was sent to Abberton Rural Training by the local Job Centre. He was under 20 and lived alone in local supported housing, having previously been sofa-surfing and street-homeless following being abandoned by his complex and unsupportive family at 15. This resulted in him finally dropping out of school having gained no qualifications and fhe had had very few positive experiences of education. He acknowledged that he took part in risky behaviour and also lacked structure around his day to day life, making him vulnerable to dropping out of mainstream society and to other influences.

He attended two days a week with the intention of gaining employment and showed initiative and interest. He also asked for advice and support to manage his anger and low frustration-tolerance which he described as a 'fuse waiting to blow'.

He responded well to working alongside the tutor and other participants and visibly grew in the acceptance of others as well as learning additional self-discipline and self-management skills.

Being keen to gain employment, after 3 months he showed an active interest in job opportunities that are shared at the project.  Every time we saw him he was being industrious - always busy, working hard to complete his units for his qualifications, and always keen to help others.  He began to apply for jobs, and we were delighted to be able to give him a glowing reference.  It didn’t take too long before he was successful in gaining employment in the  local council amenities department. He is now learning more about the self-management  and self-structure needed to maintain employed status and is reported to be enjoying this new experience.

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