Caving, charity and confidence: My experience as part of the National Citizenship Service

On the 25th of November 2014, I embarked on an adventure to the depths of Norfolk as part of National Cizitenship Service. As I didn’t know anyone that was going, the idea of spending a week with a group of people that could have been anything from incredibly hostile to overly friendly, was very daunting. I comforted myself with the thought that as the only people that could sign up were people my age from Bedfordshire, I would surely know at least one person. I was wrong; as I walked past the line of people waiting for the bus, I knew absolutely no one. Not even one person I vaguely recognised. Thus began the art of introducing myself to complete strangers. The first person I met was a boy called Shane; I had overheard him telling someone he was in John’s group, John’s group being the group I knew I had been assigned to. The bus on the way there was incredibly long. After spending three hours in a coach to realise that we had to turn around as we had gone the wrong way was sufficiently painful. I sat next to a girl on the bus that I didn’t know, and although she seemed friendly enough, conversation was sparse. When we eventually arrived at Kingswood, an outdoor activity in West Runton, Norfolk, I met my team. Made up of 8 girls and 3 boys, my team were the nicest group of people I could have asked to have been put in a team with. The eight girls were put in a dorm together and we clicked from the word ‘go.’ Or the opposite as it happened, as we were 20 minutes late for our first activity. 

Each team had an instructor from Kingswood to see us through the activities for the next four days. Our instructor’s name was Chris, but within the first few hours myself and a girl from my team, Cherokee, had decided he looked too much like Ewan McGregor to be called anything but Ewan, so Ewan was the name he was given. As a result of this, our team named themselves the MacGregors; a slightly different spelling to the spelling of Ewan McGregor, but once it had been painted on our team flag, there was no going back. The aim of Kingswood was not only to bond as a team but also to challenge ourselves and find out what our strengths and weaknesses were as a team, and individually. I found that I didn’t have an issue with any activity involving heights; I zip wired wearing a blindfold and took a photo halfway down the abseiling wall with no difficulty. It was caving, the polar opposite, that I found the most challenging. Being in a small, confined space underground, not knowing how to get out was a step too far for me. Ewan managed to convince me to go in the cave, after I refused to go down the small tunnel and entered it through the exit instead.  Once I knew exactly how the caves worked and knew how to get out, I conquered my fear and stayed in the cave for at least half an hour, but didn’t move from my one spot in the largest cave.

On the last night at Kingswood, we painted half our faces blue in honour of our quintessentially Scottish team leader, John, who re-enacted the speech from Braveheart as William Wallace for part of our talent show act. Although we came second by one point with our score from the activities we had done, we won the talent show, with our take on some of the biggest scenes from films, including the infamous revealing of Luke’s father in Star Wars, a suitably catty remark about the audience not being able to sit with us a lá Mean Girls and finishing with Ewan lifting up another of my team members, Ethan, in the style of the lift from Dirty Dancing, whilst we all sang that we’d had ‘The Time of Our Lives’ in the background, which indeed we had. The journey back was a very melancholy one; after establishing that Ewan wasn’t going to agree to being kidnapped and taken back to Bedford, we had to bid him goodbye, which left us all in a very sad state.

The morning after we got back to Bedford, the next stage of our journey began. Every day, for four days, each member of the team got themselves to Bedford Academy to plan our Social Action Project. The first day was heavily clouded by a sense of nostalgia for Kingswood; however much we tried to enjoy what we were doing, it was not even close to the fun we’d had at there. We entered some extremely deep discussions about what we believed in terms of poverty, homelessness and the environment, which challenged our ability to debate but also left us in a very subdued mood, the complete polar opposite to how we felt at Kingswood.

Despite this feeling of mourning for the carefree fun of Norfolk, we battled through and decided on our Social Action Project. As a team we decided that we wanted to do something for the community to create a sense of unity in Bedfordshire, that we all felt is sadly lacking. After toying with other ideas such as raising money for a Fayre, or taking disadvantaged children on a day out, we realised that the bounds of 4 weeks had to be considered realistically. Although it turned out to be much more work than we originally anticipated, we planned to host a music gig with bands from around Bedfordshire performing, to raise money for a local charity which helped the community of Bedford directly.

The charity we decided to support was the Bedford African and Caribbean Forum, which, as the name suggests, aids people from Bedford, especially those in need of assistance and those in vulnerable situations. The chairman of the charity, Alex Audain, was extremely helpful in making the project happen and this highlighted to us the integrity of the charity in the extent he was willing to go to, to help us make our community based Social Action Project happen. He also made a speech for us at the beginning of our night of live music, to tell the audience a bit about what their money was going towards and it encouraged a lot of people to donate extra money to our cause.

The night itself was held at the Kings Arms House on Ampthill Road, which in itself was a hard place to co-ordinate with. In the end, with the assistance of a family friend and at least one set of emails sent and received per day for 3 weeks between myself and the events co-ordinator, the venue worked brilliantly. This, of course, required some fundraising for the £180 to hire the venue. We achieved this by holding cake sales at two of the sixth forms that various people from my team attend and we also stood at Tescos checkouts for 4 hours on a Friday evening, offering to pack people’s bags for them, hoping that they gave us donations in return. We managed to raise £250 through fundraising and we also donated to the extra to the Bedford African and Caribbean Society.

The bands that performed included two bands from Sharnbrook, a group of ladies playing country music that went down a storm and an up-and-coming popular band from Bedford, Silverscreen, who headlined the night. After an act pulled out the day before, my sister and I filled in, playing an acoustic set. In the midst of last minutes organisational obligations, I forgot to learn the words for one of our songs and so to avoid embarrassment I warned the audience in advance that some of the words might not be the words they were expecting; but the response we got was very positive. A raffle was also held on the night which another team member and I had spent the Saturday before patrolling Bedford town asking for prizes for. With this and the ticket sales we managed to raise £602 for the Bedford African and Caribbean Forum.

This experience opened me up to the world of volunteering and organisation, confidence in meeting new people and finding my strengths in a team situation and one I thoroughly enjoyed.

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