Alan Stanbra, despite the fact he is slowly going blind, has been volunteering for Sheffield Mencap for seven years.
The 54 year-old had worked as a time-served engineer in Sheffield’s once booming steel industry and enjoyed working with his hands as far back as he could remember. He began as an apprentice aged 16 and eventually began programming machines for tools which would then produce tools of industry. Within a few hours he had impressed me with doing sums in his head at an unfathomable rate.
“Engineering is all maths and despite my brain injury I can still do that,” he told me as he sipped a cup of Yorkshire tea.
Alan’s health began to deteriorate slowly at first. He recalls starting to become impatient with things having a short fuse with the people around him. Self-hygiene was also lacking,
Despite all this, he was completely oblivious to the fact he had a tumour the size of a fist in his brain.
“I wasn’t the same person,” he admits. The depression he found himself in made him neglect his health, and he refused to go to the doctors when people advised him to.
After being asked several times and ignoring this advice, it was a routine eye test that picked up the first signs of an issue. It found that he had lost the sight in his left eye. Such was his depression, he hadn’t even noticed he was half blind. Antidepressants hadn’t worked for him and he was wandering in a daze.
Subsequent tests at the hospital highlighted to Alan that things were about to get worse. A brain scan showed he had a cyst in his brain. A consultant told him the tumour was the size of a lemon and that he could not leave the hospital: “I remember seeing this consultant who said I don’t want you to speak, your blind in your left eye, you’re going blind in the right. You’re going today.” The consultant told Alan he was not to leave the hospital, such was his condition.
“And do you know what, I didn’t even care. That’s how bad my depression was,” he said.
After some rehabilitation, Alan went back to work for a short period, but was eventually made redundant. With the help of the jobseeker’s office, he began to contemplate of a different line of work. Due to his love for football and going to the gym, he initially thought about becoming a gym instructor. This line of thought eventually led him to the Sheffield charity, Mencap.
Set up in 1951, Sheffield Mencap and Gateway was started by parents with children who had learning disabilities and wanted to give them a better life.
The charity is an accredited college and centre for the AQA examining board. They offer various workshops from evening social events to arts and crafts, cooking, and media workshops where they direct and film their own films using a DLSR camera.
They also run the Community Café at the Baptist Church on Napier Street on Thursdays, which gives people with disabilities the a chance to showcase their newly honed cooking skills.
Any government funding they once had has dried up and they are now financed both through fundraising and by people paying for their services.
Jonathan Raimondi, the charity’s volunteer coordinator, explained that the method of funding has changed to a system whereby “people with learning disabilities are given an amount of money to then pay for services like this.” He does feel that this was ultimately a way of cutting funding: “It effectively meant there was tons less money,” he added.
The charity attracts both students on placements and work experience as well as individuals who just want to help others. Jonathan admits that thought he really appreciates all those who volunteer, he particularly loves it when somebody is there for more than a line on their CV but to become part of a community where they really feel they can give something – or in his words: “when somebody volunteers apropos of nothing.” He saw this in Alan straight away. He also thinks it’s these people who end up getting more out of the whole experience of volunteering.
Jonathan has suffered with his own disability in the past. After studying English and managing a supermarket in the past, he was diagnosed with ME, an ailment which at one point affected him so badly he rarely left the house. He’d also been in the process of writing a novel before the illness. He has channelled these skills into his work at the charity. As well as coordinating the volunteers he runs his own workshops, including a creative writing group on Thursdays:
“I thought the group would be a good way of listening to people by proxy without trying to masquerade as offering therapy. Just giving people my time.”
There are now 30 groups like this around the country, all modelled Jonathan’s ideas and has been widely recognised for its ability to help and engage people. The Guardian published an article on a poetry book, which came into out of Jonathan’s workshops.
Alan admits he instantly had an affinity with Jonathan: “When you have two people with a health issue, I think you can relate more.” They both have a lot in common. A love for Sheffield United and a selflessness, compassion and desire to help people who need it.
Alan particularly loves working with those who have higher support needs and still feels he has a lot to give, despite his own ailments. He admitted working at the charity had turned his life around and given him an incredible desire to live it to the full. This is a feeling that was once dormant in him. He is still learning to live with the constant headaches and the reality of losing his sight: “It makes my voice croak a little and makes me sad, but only when I keep thinking about it.”
“Finding charity work saved my life.”
Throughout the conversation, no matter how emotional he got when recalling the past, he resorted to humour. It’s easy to see why he was nominated for volunteer in Sheffield last year. An example of this humour was when discussing his past employers and how one had closed shortly after he left. “They probably couldn’t go on with out me,” he said with a smirk. We also joked about how this optimism and desire to live life to the full in the face of his failing sight shows a steely determination that can only come from one from the City of Steel.
“If it wasn’t for my brain injury, my life wouldn’t have diverted onto this track and I wouldn’t have met the incredible people I have through the charity,” he said, finishing off the cup of tea.
“These diversions in people’s lives can turn out to be for the best and allow people to learn a lot about themselves.
“There was a time when I contemplated suicide,” he admits and believes it was volunteering that helped him turn his life around.
“Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind (SRSB) have also been fantastic,” he said. “I’ve met so many friends there and I’m taking part in a course where I’ll learn how to live with sight loss.” SRSB also offer people activities such as a walking group for the visibly impaired, to places like Kinder Scout in the Peak District.
“I’m in pain now, but what do you do? Just lay back? My life has changed. I still think life’s for living and it’s so short. I love coming here to Mencap and I wouldn’t want to stop. It does worry me that I’ll go blind, but while I can see I’ll carry on doing what I’m doing.”
A little more about Sheffield Mencap projects…
There are social events three nights a week, where members take part in a wide variety of activities in a safe environment. There’s also a coffee bar, snooker table and opportunities to take part in Zumba fitness, football games and dance classes. On Saturdays children can explore the performing arts in drama workshops led by trained professionals. They can also take part in baking or arts and crafts activities.