Growing up, my mum always worked with disabled children and these children always inevitably became part of our family. It’s only when I look back now that I realise how important it was for me to share my childhood with disabled children and how this has made me a fierce advocate for inclusion in my adult life.
I never planned to have a career working with disabled people or in the third sector, it all just fell into place, but in hindsight, it seems obvious that this is where I would end up.
After finishing my A levels at Alton College in 2011, I went to Exeter University to study Middle Eastern Studies with Arabic. I’d always been a high achiever at school and encouraged to pursue top universities and competitive degree courses, but I absolutely hated being at Exeter. I was so lonely and miserable and only lasted four months before I dropped out and came home. I think there is a lot of pressure for university to be the absolute best time of your life, but that isn’t the case for everyone.
Dropping out of university might seem like an end of the world type decision, but I have never regretted it. I was really lucky to have the support of my family who encouraged me to put my wellbeing before my academic success and to explore different opportunities.
I was accepted onto the Theology and Religious Studies course at the University of Winchester, where I could study and live at home with my family. After three great years, including an amazing three-week field study trip to India (very brave for a girl who got homesick three hours down the road in Exeter), I graduated with First Class Honours in Winchester Cathedral in October 2015.
My first job
After dropping out of Exeter, I got my first ‘adult’ job – working in customer services for British Airways at Heathrow. I had a brilliant time clip-clopping around the airport in my cravat and buying duty-free cosmetics. I met celebrities, I was blessed by the Vicar of Baghdad and I made friends for life (including my boyfriend). And I was able to work flexibly whilst studying which really helped me to get ready for the world of work.
As much I enjoyed the buzz and excitement of the airport, the 2am alarms were not going to be sustainable for me. I knew now that I wanted to do something with more meaning and impact, rather than arguing about overweight luggage in the small hours of the morning.
Deciding to work for a charity
I applied for a job in the community fundraising team at a local charity that provided play opportunities for disabled children and young people. I had no idea that you could get paid to fundraise, I wasn’t even really sure what the job would entail but I knew that enabling disabled children to have fun was something I could really get behind.
When I was offered the job I remember the hiring manager said to me “We interviewed candidates with more experience than you, but none of them had your passion. I can teach you how to do fundraising, but you cannot teach passion”. I think about this a lot – especially when I have been doing recruitment myself.
After a year I was promoted to community fundraising manager and spent nearly four years at this organisation. I spoke at national fundraising conferences, we won a national award for fundraising team of the year and I built relationships with some amazing children with disabilities and their families.
Inclusion had always been subconsciously important to me, but now it was becoming my raison d’etre.
Dipping my toes into the charity world quickly turned into a headfirst dive – I wanted to do more.
It seemed obvious to me that my disabled peers deserved access to all the same opportunities as me – going for pizza with friends, going dancing until 2am, dating, drinking cocktails, exercise classes. But how could I make this happen? That’s when I discovered FitzRoy’s Love4Life.
Read more: Why volunteering is so worthwhile
Love4Life is an amazing project that supports adults with learning disabilities and/or autism to make friends, try new things and maybe even find love. I know I am biased but I cannot stress how important Love4Life is in reducing isolation and enhancing quality of life for disabled adults.
Love4Life put on multiple events every week including discos, rock climbing, choir lessons, sports classes, games nights, host free workshops for members on topics such as social media safety, What is a good friend? and not forgetting chaperoning dates and helping members to navigate the world of dating and relationships.
A sense of purpose
It’s hard to explain but volunteering at Love4Life events gave me a sense of belonging and purpose I hadn’t felt before in my working life; this is where I am supposed to be, this is where I can make a difference.
Sometimes, after a long hard day at work I’d start the hour-long drive from my office to Love4Life and think “why did I say I would help tonight, I’m so tired and stressed!?!”. But as soon as I got there and saw the smiling faces of the members, I wasn’t tired or stressed any more.
I had been volunteering with Love4Life for three years – chaperoning dates, manning the bar at discos and making the hot dogs for movie nights – when the service manager Hayley reached out to me about the opportunity to help expand the project in a new area and I jumped at the chance.
Volunteer for causes you care about
My top tip for anyone wanting to break into the third sector (or any sector really) would be to volunteer. Find something you care about and get involved! You can make a real difference by volunteering but on a selfish note, the things you stand to gain are invaluable. New skills, new contacts, new perspectives, new friends just to name a few.
There are so many volunteering opportunities out there, some of which you can even do from the comfort of your own home – there really is something for everyone.
What it’s like to work for a charity
My role as project co-ordinator is a varied and fun job, no two days are the same. Following the huge success of our Fareham project, we have launched a brand new base in Basingstoke so that we can reach more adults with learning disabilities and autism.
My day to day job includes promoting our new Basingstoke project, interviewing prospective members, communicating with current members, planning and running events, connecting with other organisations working with disabled adults, attending training on topics such as sexual health and safeguarding adults, recruiting volunteers.
Sometimes I’ll be out for a meal with the members, eating and laughing, and I think how did I get so lucky that this is what I get paid to do?! In that example my job is to support the members to make conversation, to read the menu and order their food, to pay the bill. Just little bits of support, without which they would not be able to do something totally ordinary like go out for dinner.
Growing the new project is a really exciting challenge and I am very excited for the future. Our first few events – bowling, pizza and a brunch – have been a great success and it has been wonderful to start getting to know the members.
The best thing about my job
Without a shadow of a doubt, the best thing about my job is the Love4Life members. It’s impossible to have a bad day at work with them around.
Being around people with learning disabilities and autism really changes the way you see the world, I have learnt such a lot from them. It’s cliché, but they inspire me every day.
Spending a lot of my life around children and adults with disabilities has shaped me into the person I am today. It’s taught me to communicate clearer and say what I mean, to always stand up for what I value, to always see the person and not the label or stereotype, to think creatively and my life is all the richer for it.
Advice to my younger self
Stop comparing yourself to others – not everyone will thrive at university, we can’t all be lawyers…
Don’t be afraid to try new things. Much like dating, with jobs, you will have to kiss a few frogs to find a prince!
Know what matters to you. Monday mornings are a joy and not a slog when you do something that you really care about.