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Posted by Alex Vernon on

“I told a girl I had arthritis and she said, ‘Oh, is that all?’”

Last year I interviewed beneficiaries of the charity Arthritis Care as part of a big story-gathering project with Mile 91. I wrote this blog for Mile 91’s website.

Rowena (on the right) tells me about the help she's had from Arthritis Care
Rowena (on the right) tells me about the help she’s had from Arthritis Care

I’d always thought I was well acquainted with arthritis, as both my sister and my mum live with pretty nasty forms of it.

But it wasn’t until I interviewed others with the disease – people I didn’t know – for the charity Arthritis Care that I really started to grasp what it’s like for my mum and sister.

It sounds like I have a distant, dutiful-phone-calls-three-times-a-year type relationship with my family, right? Actually, the opposite is true – we speak every day. If anything we care too much, regularly working ourselves into irrational frenzies of worry about each other. It’s exhausting!

You can find this post in full on Mile 91’s website. Thanks for reading!

Posted by Alex Vernon on

New van, new plans – a day with Leonard Cheshire Disability

Last month I spent a lovely day’s story-gathering with residents and staff from Hill House, a Leonard Cheshire Disability home near Crewe.

Until recently, Hill House had transport problems. It had just two small vans, both vital for getting everyone out and about on day-trips to shopping centres, stately homes and the seaside. But if medical appointments came up, they had to take priority. With no vans available, the painstakingly-planned day-trips would be cancelled at the last minute. “That used to upset us, as we felt we were letting the residents down,” said Lynn, who coordinates the day-trips.

Not any more! Hill House recently got funding for a new vehicle – a spacious, specially adapted Mercedes van. Leonard Cheshire Disability’s fundraising team asked me to help them show the enormous difference this van has been making to everyone at Hill House.

Here’s Hill House and its much-loved new van. “Now that we’ve got the van, our daytrips are guaranteed,” Lynn told me. “Communal living is tough. People don’t have much personal space. But they’re so different when they’re out on day-trips - they’re free to be themselves.”
Here’s Hill House and its much-loved new van. “Now that we’ve got the van, our day-trips are guaranteed,” Lynn told me. “Communal living is tough. People don’t have much personal space. But they’re so different when they’re out on daytrips – they’re free to be themselves.”
This is Bev. She was just 30 – a busy mum with two young children - when she had a severe stroke. She has lived at Hill House for 19 years.
This is Bev. She was just 30 – a busy mum with two young children – when she had a severe stroke. She has lived at Hill House for 19 years.
I joined Bev and other Hill House residents and staff on a trip to a local garden centre. Here’s Bev getting herself into the Mercedes via the lift at the back.
I joined Bev and other Hill House residents and staff on a trip to a local garden centre. Here’s Bev getting herself into the Mercedes via the lift at the back.
Lynn’s in the driving seat. “It’s a big responsibility, driving all these people,” she says. “Their lives depend on me. Knowing that we have a reliable vehicle - that everyone is safe and comfortable in the back - is a real weight off my mind.”
Lynn’s in the driving seat. “It’s a big responsibility, driving all these people,” she says. “Their lives depend on me. Knowing that we have a reliable vehicle – that everyone is safe and comfortable in the back – is a real weight off my mind.”
Unfortunately we’d chosen a pretty grey day for our trip out…
Unfortunately we’d chosen a pretty grey day for our trip out…
Fortunately there was lots on offer under cover!
Fortunately there was lots on offer under cover!
Bev and her support worker Sue spent most of the day laughing…
Bev and her support worker Sue spent most of the day laughing…
…while Marianne enjoyed a civilised glass of rose with her lunch, accompanied by her support worker Annette. A former social worker, Marianne has multiple sclerosis.
…while Marianne enjoyed a civilised glass of rose with her lunch, accompanied by her support worker Annette. A former social worker, Marianne has multiple sclerosis.
“It’s really nice getting up close and personal with the flowers,” said Marianne.
“It’s really nice getting up close and personal with the flowers,” said Marianne.
Then it’s back in the van for the journey back to Hill House. “The new van gives us exceptional opportunities to go out as a family,” said Lynn. “We enjoy being out together - it’s the more, the merrier. It’s just a lot more fun for everyone.”
Then it’s back in the van for the journey back to Hill House. “The new van gives us exceptional opportunities to go out as a family,” said Lynn. “We enjoy being out together – it’s the more, the merrier. It’s just a lot more fun for everyone.”
Thanks so much to everyone at Hill House for making me feel so welcome. Here's to more delightful day-tripping in the new van!
Thanks so much to everyone at Hill House for making me feel so welcome. Here’s to more delightful day-tripping in the new van!

Posted by Alex Vernon on

Happy International Women’s Day Anisa! And here’s Leslie Knope with a high-five.

'What would Leslie Knope do?' A worthy role model for my gal. Pic from Pinterest/Vulture.com
‘What would Leslie Knope do?’ A worthy role model for my gal. Pic from Pinterest/Vulture.com

Stories about inspirational women mean a lot more to me now that I have a daughter. I’m storing them away in my mind, ready to whip them out at timely moments when Tess is old enough and interested enough to listen. “Yes Tess, you CAN be an investigative journalist who travels round the world in 72 days! Look at Nellie Bly!” (The wonderful Nellie Bly who, I was happy to see, appeared in this list of 12 remarkable women from history ‘who didn’t give a f***’.)

A Mighty Girl and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls are also brilliant sources of amazing women that I’m saving up for Tess. And speaking of Amy Poehler, I want Tess watching Parks and Recreation as soon as possible. That way, whenever we have a problem we can turn to each other and say, “What would Leslie Knope do?” (For anyone who hasn’t seen Parks and Recreation, Leslie is the show’s main character, played by Amy Poehler. She’s an endearing, feisty, funny, thoughtful blonde with big political ambitions. And she loves waffles. I adore her.)

I’m pretty sure I know what Leslie Knope would do if she met Anisa, the young woman I’m dedicating this post to. She’d high-five her and invite her out for waffles.

I met Anisa in January when I was writing stories for the youth volunteering programme International Citizen Service (ICS). I say ‘met’ – we spoke on the phone. But Anisa was so warm and chatty about her time as a volunteer in Zambia that it felt like we’d met personally.

Anisa on ICS in Zambia with a dude with cool hair. Anisa, I salute you!
Anisa on ICS in Zambia with a dude with cool hair. Anisa, I salute you!

Here’s why Anisa has joined Nellie Bly and Leslie Knope in my list of role models:

She’s brave.

Anisa told me that in her close-knit Muslim community in Leicester, it’s unusual for unmarried women to travel abroad alone. Despite resistance from her parents, Anisa wanted to challenge this norm. “I know it sounds cheesy,” she said, “but I wanted to be a role model for other girls in my community. I was determined to travel and hopefully change things for the next generation.”

She’s honest.

When she arrived at the home of her Zambian host family, Anisa was overcome with homesickness. And she was refreshingly open about this. “I immediately rejected everything: the bare floors, the picture of Jesus on the wall, the orange sofa. The tipping point was discovering that to go to the loo I had to go outside in the dark. I was sitting on my bed, crying, thinking ‘I’ve got three months of this – how can I do it?’”

She’s strong.

Anisa didn’t let her homesickness win. Instead, “Within a week I was seeing the positives in everything. I’d got through the horrible bits like seeing cockroaches and what had seemed tough, like hand-washing all my clothes, suddenly seemed fun. I was thinking, ‘I’m happy sitting outside in the sun scrubbing my clothes – they’ll dry quickly too!’”

She’s self-aware.

ICS changed Anisa. “I wasn’t a confident person at the start and without my ICS team, I think I’d still be in my shy little bubble. As the weeks went by, I had the confidence to plonk myself down and chat with whoever was sitting around. I wouldn’t have been able to do that before – I’d have shied away or pretended to read a book.”

She made a difference.

Anisa worked with women’s groups in rural Zambia, helping challenge myths around HIV & AIDS. “We made it clear that you can’t become infected by hugging or holding hands or sharing the same plate. Sharing that knowledge was really important because it means people living with HIV won’t be as ostracised in their communities.”

I loved it when Anisa said: “When I got back from Zambia, I felt like I could take on the world. If I managed to do the most challenging thing of my life, then I could do anything!”

But then she added that as the months since her return went by, that I-can-do-it feeling had started to fizzle out. She had a job interview coming up and she wasn’t sure she was up to it.

You ARE up to it Anisa! Thank you for being a role model not just for the girls in your community, but for my daughter Tess – and for me. Happy International Women’s Day!