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 twenties 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 Training 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 learning new skills.
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.”
Find out more about Abberton Rural Training here: http://www.abbertonruraltraining.org/
Find out about volunteering with Greenfields here: Volunteering