Seeing things differently      

After working in High Net Worth Insurance for many years I made the decision to branch out on my own. I was about to launch a new business when I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition that will lead to blindness. I didn’t know how to cope with this, how to ask for help, or where to find it. I was unemployed, single and due to this, inevitably, spending a lot of time in my own company. I became depressed, plagued with anxiety, diminishing self-respect, self-confidence and pride. Rather than facing my demons I turned to alcohol.

Fast forward a year or two and I was healing. Attending my twice monthly appointment at the job centre I met Nathan from School of Hard Knocks (SOHK), who sat down for a chat. I was aware of the charity having seen the SkySports programmes and was keen to hear what he had to say. We talked for a while and it became clear that due to my deteriorating sight, I could not safely take part in the rugby sessions. Further, I probably would not benefit a great deal from the employment workshops. However, in a (previously) uncharacteristic moment of pragmatism, I asked “could I come along as a volunteer?”. Nathan agreed. He felt my background and knowledge could prove useful.

From day one I realised I had made the right decision. After a quick catch up on arrival, Nathan introduced me to the course facilitators and the rugby coach. I made it quite clear that I was there to help in any capacity they thought useful.

As the course progressed, I was able to contribute in several ways. Having played rugby for twenty plus years I could give some tips to those who had never picked up the odd shaped ball before. In the workshops I was able to assist with the mock interviews, offer an insight into CV’s and what to expect at interviews.

At the end of the course I knew I would miss the chaps when the following week arrived and there was no SOHK. Having a purpose, somewhere to be with people, had brought about a very welcome shift in my outlook. My energy, enthusiasm and positivity were increased markedly. I knew I had changed and would look forward at what could be, rather than back at what had been.

I had enjoyed the banter, the company of others and felt pride for the first time in years. Pride at how this disparate group had come together in such a short time and that I had played some, no matter how small, part in that achievement. I no longer thought of my disability as my defining trait, just as something that was a part of me.

Through SOHK I met Andrew, a long-time supporter of the charity. That friendship has provided me with a platform to build on my aspirations as a writer. I have contributed pieces to SOHK and will continue to do so for as long as they want me to. I have also done some editing work with a magazine which is due to be published soon. Much of this recent success is directly due to the changes brought about in me and the contacts I made during my time with SOHK.

I look back on my time with the charity last Summer in the middle of the heatwave and realise how much I learned. Not just from the course facilitators, Ken (Cowen, CEO), the partners who joined us in the filthiest of conditions to play rugby, but also from the participants on the course.

The camaraderie, support and encouragement were palpable, and I had missed the feeling of being part of a team, of being an equal. For those eight weeks, I was not judged for being on benefits or being disabled. I was not judged at all. Just encouraged.

Malcolm Johnson

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