Tom Hodson used to live on the streets, his was a peripatetic lifestyle that did little to help him overcome his depression and manic episodes. Diagnosed bipolar, even when he got a roof over his head, he often went for a week without proper sleep.
Today he is honoured as a Green Hero in an annual awards scheme, having made a difference to the local environment through volunteering and transforming his life in the process. The 21-year-old from Salisbury has has won in the natual health category in the awards run by practical conservation charity British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV), recognising how he’s changed his own life and inspired others. The Green Hero awards show the positive impact of those who give their time for community-based conservation projects.
Tom’s hands-on, practical work with the charity has had, he says, huge benefits on his sleep issues. Without his role, he adds “I’d be doing nothing..going nowhere with my life.”
The scheme has given him “direction and purpose” and has boosted his mental health. As well as becoming more confident, he has learned time keeping, healthy eating and how to use a computer. He leads groups of volunteers and is looking forward to coming off benefits and into paid work.
Tom’s fellow Green Heroes include Michael Rogerson, 20, who won the volunteer of the year award. Michael, who has been deaf since birth, joined BTCV after 15 months without work, he was depressed and had very low self esteem. He has now got his dream job as a gardener and is learning to speak after having a cochlear implant and one day hopes to set up a dry stone walling business.
And the benefit of supporting and including a diverse volunteer workforce is not simply on the inviduvual themselves; having such a diverse team of volunteers improves social inclusion and breaks stigmas.
There are of course specific schemes that offer people with disabilities or those with mental health problems the opportunity to donate their time to the community with support. Schemes like the Respect Us project, run by charity Community Service Volunteers (CSV) that help young learning disabled people to volunteer as they move from school to becoming a young adult.
It might seem like the current financial climate is the worst time to invest in extra support for volunteers who might be vulnerable in some way, but supported volunteering, pays dividends. Check here for great little film showing how Jenny, with Asperger’s found new confidence and skills and boosted intergenerational contact between local youth and older people through supported volunteering).
At BTCV, volunteer officers are aware of the impact of “green heros” likes Michael and Tom. Senior project officer Rachel Miller, who nominated Michael says: “His can-do attitude, where there are no barriers, has been an example to us all.” Tara Hares, volunteer officer who works with Tom, adds: “He turns up raring to go, he doesn’t allow his issues to affect the work he is doing..I feel proud working with Tom, knowing what he has been through and he is still funny, and brilliant at what he does. I’m pleased and proud to work with him.”
Watch this quite lovely film, introduced by Sir David Attenborough, which features both Tom and Michael and other inspiring volunteers:
* On a related note, the Hardest Hit campaign run jointly by the Disability Benefits Consortium and the UK Disabled People’s Council has organised several events tomorrow, Saturday 22nd, in protest about the impact of cuts on society’s most vulnerable – a community that includes people whose needs echo those of Tom and Michael, above. More information on what’s happening tomorrow is here.