Champions of change

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Karen Gold reports on some of the highlights of the Year of the Volunteer Awards

Songs for a sister

Opera diva Lesley Garrett rang 11-year-old Zoe Mace at her Oxfordshire home this year, to sing her "Happy Birthday". Zoe could not believe it: "I thought it was somebody kidding. I kept saying it's not really Lesley Garrett, until in the end she had to sing some really high-class notes so I would believe her."

Zoe had met the star only a few days before, as part of her long-running fund-raising campaign for the Oxford Children's Hospital and other charities, which began as a result of teaching her four-year-old sister, Jodie, who had Down Syndrome, to talk and sing.

"Zoe noticed that if she sat facing the mirror with Jodie, Jodie would copy the way she spoke and sang. So they used to sing together and put on shows for the family," says their mother Linda. Imitation had already taught Zoe something, too: while watching opera on television she had copied the singers one day, revealing that, as an eight-year-old, she had a big, operatic voice.

For Zoe, singing lessons followed; but Jodie went to a series of hospital appointments due to a serious heart condition. It was at one of these, at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, that Zoe noticed a fundraising poster for the pound;15 million yet-to-be-built Oxford Children's Hospital, and decided to make an album. With backing from local newspapers and music companies, her mix of opera and light classical music raised pound;27,000, selling out all 5,000 copies.

That was in 2004. A second disc, in aid of the Down Syndrome Association, was planned for 2005. Just before it was due to be recorded, Jodie, now four, went into hospital for a heart operation and died. Initially, the family wanted to cancel the recording.

It was Zoe, says Linda, who decided to go ahead. "She said 'My sister would be so cross if I didn't do the thing she loved', and it's a way of telling people about how people with Down Syndrome have a place in our lives." The new album, Songs for my Sister, raised pound;51,000 for the DSA.

Since then there have been concerts in aid of other charities, including tsunami victims, as well as time spent with a bereaved siblings group run by a local hospice, a fund-raising award from the charity Mencap, and the meeting with Lesley Garrett on the London Eye, organised for Zoe by a TV company as an 11th birthday present.

"Every time I sing I think of Jodie," Zoe says, "and it always makes me happy. I miss her a lot. I don't think I could have had a better sister."


"When I meet people they say, 'Doesn't arthritis only affect old people?'"

Poppy Macleod has met many people since she began presenting hospital radio programmes at the age of 15.

Diagnosed with rare juvenile arthritis when she was two, she spent long spells in hospital for surgery and physiotherapy. Yet, when her learning support scribe at Pullam secondary school in Cumbria suggested she volunteer on the radio station at Westmoreland General Hospital, she leapt at the chance.

"I do one evening a fortnight, starting at seven and finishing at 10. The first hour I go round the wards and meet patients: they tell me stories and give me music requests. Then I DJ and play the music.

"Sometimes it's difficult if people aren't feeling well; they might be a bit short with you. It takes a bit of courage. But it's given me a lot of confidence and I love it."

Now 18, Poppy is studying French and Spanish at Durham University, having gained three grade As at A level. Her wrists are in splints and she can neither write nor use the computer for long without getting tired. At Durham two fellow students take lecture notes for her, and another carries her books to and from the library.

But that has not stopped her presenting a weekly afternoon music programme on Durham students' Purple Radio, and she has joined a group of students who teach Spanish in local primary schools once a week.

"I hope I can carry on with hospital radio in the holidays," she says. "I always come away feeling better because I so like meeting the people and doing the show."

Graffiti artists

If you go down to the skateparks and community centres of Tyne and Wear today, you may see graffiti designed and created by members of a new artists' collective, Eye of The Fly, some of whom are young people at risk of disaffection and offending.

Eye of The Fly was set up by filmmaker and photographer Tor Bruce, who wanted to encourage unfulfilled talent in the North East, in particular that shown by young people with disabilities or special needs, some of whom were involved in illegal graffiti.

With support first from Northumbria Police who, he says, were "fighting a losing battle against graffiti" and local youth-offending teams, he brought together a group of youngsters aged 14 to 25 and helped them find official commissions from local councils in Gateshead, Sunderland and South Tyneside, including decorating community centres, museums and even schools.

Most recently, two Eye of The Fly artists were commissioned to decorate the 50-foot wall of a dance studio in Hewarth Grange Arts College in Gateshead, drawing in students from the secondary school as well to create and produce their design of breakdancers and music staves against an urban landscape.

The process is highly-disciplined, says Tor Bruce. "We have to work to the brief set by the client. We have to prepare designs and work out how to produce them. Sometimes that's uncomfortable. But they learn you can't just turn up and start spraying."

Through fund-raising and lottery awards Eye of the Fly will soon have its own Gateshead premises, where graffiti artists, filmmakers and exercise teachers can all be based, run classes, carry out commissions and eventually be self-supporting.

"If there wasn't a legal alternative then some of these young people would be working illegally," says Tor. "Up-and-coming artists, aged 14, 15 or 16, do this because they see how they can do much better work."

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