A week volunteering with The Back Up Trust

‘Come on trained killer,’ my new coach yelled at me, as we raced around the reservoir.

My coach was peddling a hand bike extremely fast, while I was chasing after him.

My nick name (trained killer) came from a game of two truths and a lie the night before.

As an introductory ice-breaker, we went round the group saying three statements (one being a lie). Then we all had to guess each others lies. My statements were:

1. I have 2 brothers

2. I used to do kick boxing and krav maga

3. I once got stranded on the Amazon River in the pitch dark on a broken boat.

The game marked the beginning of The Back Up Trust’s multi activity course in Exmoor.

The Back Up Trust was founded by Mike Nemesvary, who had a trampolining accident, when he was just 24 years old. Breaking his neck, Mike’s life changed forever. He was unable to do the things he loved, such as skiing. Consequently, he set up the charity Back Up Trust to enable others like himself to continue having adventures despite having physical injuries. Hence the multi-activity course I was to volunteer on would be adrenaline- filled, very active and outdoorsy.

The first day kicked off with a wheel-chair skills session. We had two groups – manual and powered chairs.

In the manual chairs group we began by manoeuvring around cones, practising pushing off walls, going back wards, turning around corners and slowly stopping.

I sat in a wheelchair and tried this too. My driving skills were not up to scratch. I almost fell out the chair a few times due to breaking too hard or steering incorrectly with little control.

Next, it was time to do back-wheel balances, go down steep slopes and even down stairs. I was spotting for this, which involved standing behind a wheelchair holding a rope. This way if anyone tipped forwards I could pull the rope and the chair would move back safely.

It was very easy to fall out, especially going down the steps. That is why it was important we had someone in front of the chair to catch people, as well as behind to pull the chair upright if need be.

The next exercise involved participants getting out of their chair onto the floor and back in the chair using sheer arm strength. It looked extremely hard to do unassisted.

If this was not possible another technique was used called scooping. This provided a way to get back into the chair after falling without needing just arm strength. An able bodied person would help position the individual on the floor.

The chair would be on its side, with the back flat on the floor. We would scoot the person into the chair, carry their legs over into the right place and then tip the chair upright, back to standing.

Practising going down stairs a participant fell out their chair and two personal assistants hurriedly lifted the gentleman back up.

The instructor told us not to do this again. The maneuver must be lead by the person on the floor. They are the one that says how they want things done. It is their choice how they wish to be picked up or assisted up.

This was the most important thing I learnt during the whole course. Never assume someone wants help. I am quick to help push people up hills, to pick up things dropped on the floor or help with luggage. However, before doing anything I learnt to ask if help was actually wanted. Independence is important. There is nothing worse than to start pushing someone in their chair when they want to challenge themselves up the hill alone.

Lastly, we practised back wheel balances down steep hills outside before breaking for lunch.

In the afternoon my group went down to the reservoir to try out accessible bikes. There was a huge range. To begin with I peddled round while one participant sat in the front of the bike. I have to admit my poor friend got rather close to the brambles. I was going very slowly as the bike didn’t seem to have adequate steering. I let another volunteer take over. They didn’t have much luck either. I was relived it wasn’t just my driving skills.

I resorted to jogging next to the others. My steady jog turned into a run as I kept up with the fastest member (my new coach for the week)

Keen to get back for swimming at 5 pm we raced back to the shed, for a quick transfer into the wheel chair from the hand-bike. However, the shed was locked (with the wheelchair inside). My coach suggested going back to find the others. So off we went.

Turned out we went round the reservoir the other way round to them. So ended up doing an extra circuit of the lake. It was brilliant and meant we got more of a work out.

Birds chirped in the trees and geese swam in the reservoir. Lining the banks were wild flowers – purple fox gloves, daisies and buttercups.

We got back to he shed at the same time as the others having basically lapped them.

Still wanting to get to the swimming pool in the quickest amount of time, with the most adventure, we decided instead of taking the motor buggy car up the hill, we would push up. My buddy was very strong pushing himself using the wheels and I pushed too. Team work makes the dream work.

We got back in time for group swimming. This was also a wonderful experience.

My able bodied room-mate and I lost a back stroke race against one of the participants. We held hands and used one arm each while not using our legs. We were very slow. It was a poor show. We lost by far.

None of us wanted to get out the pool but it was time for dinner. The evening was spent playing very competitive games of table football and singing.

The morning of day two was spent crate stacking. How this worked was by seeing which team could get themselves the highest by placing crates on top of each other and sitting or standing on the top crate. Two members of the team were held in a harnesses. Either a sitting down harness with back support or one where you could stand up. While the others were clipped in to support the rope or spent time helping pass crates to those in the harnesses. Everyone had a go.

After lunch there was horse riding. Either on a friendly horse if you had enough core balance or on a carriage behind the horse. The sun decided to come out and it was very relaxing watching the horse lap the track.

Afterwards we got to pet a donkey named pilgrim.

During dinner I learnt Wiganese slang. It was lots of fun. Not sure I could pull off being a local in Wigan but at least I’ll understand some of the dialect if I go.

Post dinner a group of us decided that we needed more exercise so went down to the tranquil lake.

We were very giddy and enamoured by all the nature. Turning into big kids, we played pooh stick. Each finding a stick and chucking in over the bridge. Then racing to the other side to see who won.

A little further around the reservoir was the bird house. We sat inside watching a mother and her baby ducklings waddling along the grass. Meanwhile a thrush swooped down into the bright blue lake.

Next, it was time for our musical orchestra. We found pieces of grass and played the reed, making the most terrible noises. At the same time we whooped and shouted.

For a while we paused on the grass, chatting, admiring the view and picking buttercups to decorate each other’s hair.

Before the final push back to our accommodation, it was time to play a game of tai chi fitness. There were a series of colourful balls attached to wooden posts which we had to run past and tap. All four of us hit them.

We then pushed hard up the steep hill.

Not wanting to go inside I ran an extra lap around the lake. On returning I chilled with others on scenic swings.

The rest of the evening was spent star gazing on the balcony.

On our third day we began with a game of archery.

There were assisted bows and arrows so again like with all the activities everyone could take part. I was pretty terrible at the archery but rediscovered my balloon art skills. Not only making the targets but also a Back Up branded dog along with a Robin hood hat.

The session sped by and before we knew it we were having lunch and getting ready for accessible abseiling. Transferring into a sturdy harness and wheelchair it was possible for participants to roll off the side of a vertical wall. Able bodied volunteers would go down at the same time assisting.

Before our final evening there was time for some downtime. We hung out on the swings again, played snooker and chatted in the common room.

For the debrief we each said our highlight and what car part we would associate ourselves with reflecting on our participation during the course.

I really enjoyed the week in Exmoor, there were countless special moments, from relaxing outside and having meaningful, thought provoking conversations, to seeing participants achieve incredible things despite their disabilities.

I said I would be the self charging battery in an electric car, as I had a lot of energy during the course.

The last activity was writing each other anomalous compliments to be opened and looked at when home. People wrote the most lovely things for me. I will cherish the comments and memories.

Then the party began, I borrowed a wheelchair and we danced the night away. It was lots of fun.

We played the after eights game. With the chocolate placed on the top of your forehead you had to see if you could make it get to your mouth using just your facial muscles. Trickier than you may think.

That evening the stars were incredible. Stepping onto the balcony for fresh air. Bright silver spots glistened in the sky.

The last morning together was emotional, we took in the last of the views, went for a final lake walk before getting a taxi to the station.

With an hour to kill in Barnstaple, we spontaneously hired a bike and rode along the river.

It was the perfect way to end a fantastic week.

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